In Chris Hannan’s adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, Russia is a bleak place full of desperation and hardship. The people struggle to find meaning in political debates and philosophical theories about humanity. Raskolnikov is a wayward law student who commits murder to unburden himself from shame but who is unable to justify his actions in his own paranoia.
The stage is desolate, floorboards sloping across the room, dotted with chairs and a single bare bed. The emptiness is sharpened by bars of fluorescent lighting that crack on and off at angles around the room. Martin Kinnane’s lighting design is cold while also being deeply mundane, lighting the room like a rehearsal at times or casting ugly shadows like in car parks or public stairwells. It’s not a flattering choice but it also serves to set the production apart in terms of denying performative nostalgia. Juxtaposed with the warm glowing floorboards, the harsh bars of light are a deliberate denial of comfort.
When Sonya (Natasha Vickery), Nastasya (Madeleine Miller), and Alyona (Beth McMullen) enter it is like dolls gliding through their playhouse. The dynamic between men and women in this production, whether intellectually or physically, is dichotomous. The women are most often smooth and serene, suffering their lot silently and as best they can in oppressive circumstances. While the men bound about, energetic and boisterous in both anger and glee. Their frustrations are externalised in alcoholism, violence, politics, and their work.
Once Raskolnikov (James Smithers) has decided to commit his murder, his thin veiled justification almost immediately disintegrates and he becomes further entrapped by his circular, deadly thoughts. After her murder, Alyona wanders the outskirts of scenes, gawking from corners like an ineffectual ghost or psychological metaphor. The biggest threat to Raskolnikov is really his own fear, especially when cornered in a room against the control of Porfiry Petrovich (Philippe Klaus).
Smithers’s Raskolnikov is weedy, sneaking into places he is unwanted and sucking the oxygen from the room with his suspicions. His ever-shifting eyes in an otherwise stony face slide across all the other characters, show how weighting them with the residue of his secret. Raskolnikov is not entirely devoid of sympathy for his desperation and emotional blindness but his intellectualising and literal grasping for maternal comfort in his black overcoat. Anthony Skuse’s direction of the villain protagonist is humourless at best, the character is drained, insipid even in the height of political passion.
The humanity of this production comes from elsewhere, the characters experiencing emotional journeys entirely separate from what’s inside Raskolnikov’s head. Miller’s Nastasya provides unappreciated nourishment and genuine care; Dunya (Jane Angharad), Raskolnikov’s sister attempts to carve a life for herself out from under her brother’s fist; and Sonya a sex worker alternately praised for bringing her family her wage but scorned for the femininity that brings shame upon them. Vickery’s Sonya is soft but secure in her beliefs and appears to be the only character openly pursuing happiness. She is ill-fated in her promises to Raskolnikov but her presence in his story added much needed integrity.
This is not necessarily Chekov’s Russia for Dostoyevsky’s characters are drawn together out of desperation and a type of inarticulable personal failure. Their surroundings are as bleak and barren as their personalities and future prospects. Skuse has manifested the murderous hero’s hollow justification on the stage for a very weary production indeed.
Crime & Punishment is running at Limelight on Oxford from December 12th – 22nd