The Brothers Karamazov
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until October 28
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It isn’t difficult to see why Glasgow’s Tron Theatre chose to stage this revival of Richard Crane’s 1981 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamazov. The piece has an impressive heritage.
Originally presented, by the Brighton Theatre Company, as part of the prestigious programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, its four-strong cast included the late, great Alan Rickman and excellent Scottish actor Peter Kelly. Faynia Williams’s Festival production enjoyed critical plaudits. Reviewing for our daily sister paper, then called The Glasgow Herald, my colleague Mary Brennan praised “a lean forceful play”, which was given “uncluttered, pacey direction” by Williams.
This Tron revival is very much an homage to that celebrated production of 36 years ago. Not only is it working with the same text, but it also boasts the original music by Stephen Boxer (who also acted in the 1981 show) and the services, as director, of Williams herself.
If this new staging of the Karamazovs arrived loaded with expectation, sad to say the production dashes one’s excitement quickly and emphatically. Williams has created a production which is so dry and languid that it is difficult to believe that she actually created the fondly remembered show of the early-Eighties.
Dostoyevsky’s novel places the bloody, internecine crisis of the bourgeois Karamazov family within the wider context of a decadent Czarist Russia. As in a Chekhov play, we sense that this is a social, political and religious order that is on the brink of collapse. Indeed, both writers, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, are so penetrating in their observations of the clash between Czarism and European Enlightenment thought that they seem almost to prophecy the rise of Bolshevism and the revolution of October 1917.
Crane’s adaptation of the Karamazovs pares Dostoyevsky’s novel down to the essentials of the brothers (including Smerdyakov, reputed “bastard” son of the rancid and disreputable paterfamilias Fyodor). Unlike the original production, however, there is little in this revival of the stifling atmosphere of late-19th century Russia.
Williams’s production never achieves the promised, swift, sharply focused evocations of, for example, the dissoluteness of the wayward Dmitry (Thierry Mabonga) or the piety of the youngest brother Alyosha (a novice in an Orthodox monastery, played by Tom England). Instead the piece feels hesitant and disjointed, the acting performances strained and uncertain.
Sean Biggerstaff tries to lend some kind of moral weight to Ivan, the restless nihilist who, like a Lucifer of the Enlightenment, tests Alyosha’s faith. However, his playing is heavy on exposition and emotional hyperbole, and light on subtlety. Likewise Mark Brailsford’s Smerdyakov, who is a caricature of oily servility, rather than a complex schemer capable of violent patricide.
This production isn’t even a decent advert for Boxer’s music, which is characterised in this staging by occasional chimes and awkward singing by the cast. If Williams’s decision to have her actors sing, in pairs on either side of the auditorium, from behind the audience, is intended be emotionally evocative, it fails dismally. One can only imagine the spiritual polyphony that might have been achieved by her original production, because it is entirely absent here.
The show’s set, designed by Carys Hobbs, certainly contributes to the piece’s sense of dull inflexibility. A hard, static arena, the actors either clamber upon the steps upon its walls or roll, barefoot in the too-obviously metaphorical mud. The results are both theatrically unforgiving and visibly unedifying.
It is only four years since director Dominic Hill brought us a superb production of another Dostoyevsky novel (Crime And Punishment, adapted brilliantly by Chris Hannan) at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The inevitable comparison does this listless Brothers Karamazov no favours at all.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 22, 2017
© Mark Brown