My dog-eared Penguin Classics edition of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment runs to 541 pages, so when I saw Corpus Christ Owlets' bold publicity claim that their "award-winning adaptation promises to bring all the richness of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece to the stage", I felt an attitude of caution might be appropriate until the opening night. As it turned out, though, this was no tall boast. A dramatised version of a novel, if it is to do honour to the original and plausibly to borrow its name, has to make a decent stab at its major themes. In the present case, writers Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have perhaps understandably sidestepped the wider dilemma of the 19th century Russian intellectual, and Dostoyevsky's showing how the student Raskolnikov is corrupted by the fashionable moral scepticism fashionable in what passed for progressive circles.
On the other hand the drama does deal – and in gratifying detail, given the abbreviated 90 mins running time – with the two rather more manageable of Dostoyevsky's preoccupations, viz. the necessity of suffering in order to come at salvation, and secondly that of Nietzsche's 'superior man.' To take the second first, as the impoverished Raskolnikov Stas Butler) sets to contemplating the justification of his murder of an elderly, grasping pawnbroker, a sort of St Petersburg Wonga, the script builds impressively on the way his initial protestations that he's acting in pursuit of a greater good, ie a virtuous re-distribution of wealth, by degrees give way to the self-delusion that he has the right to commit any act of his choosing in order to achieve his ends.
Raskolnikov's discovery that no one can set themselves apart from the rest of humanity, and that crime is inevitably followed by punishment since the criminal will be eventually overwhelmed by a feeling of separation and alienation originating in his conscience, forces him to try to re-establish his link to humanity.
This stripped-down drama, which is to say Raskolnikov's moral odyssey, advances by means of interviews with the examining magistrate Porfiry (Tom Fisher), and scenes with Sonia (Nicole Jacobus), a young woman latterly dedicated to saving Raskolnikov’s soul and who by reason of her own and her family's abject poverty has been compelled to prostitute herself. Other exchanges, principally with Sonia's reeling father, the pawnbroker and the latter's abused sister, serve to cast light on Sonia's determination but vulnerability, and on Raskolnikov's agonised volatility. Not least, Raskolnikov reveals his increasing attraction to megalomania by means of monologues; cleverly written in that they're never over-extended.
This was a classic BT Studio scenario in that this full-house audience of 50 sat tightly around the acting space, fascinated witnesses at a trial or even an auto-da-fé, literally within fingertip distance of the players. This is a production that gave me a clear sense of producer Hugh Tappin and director Frances Livesey having devoted a great deal of thought to its every aspect. Thus the central murder is done and dusted in a flash – impressive economy. The direction of the actors has insisted on movement, recognising the pitfall with this material of static speechifying. Costume designer Naomi Sosnovsky has taken the trouble of sourcing the costumes, based on traditional Russian models, from the National Theatre. Sonia's outfits in shades of red, silvery-grey and beige were a particular delight. The lighting is often intense, but varied.
The set consists of a simple section of grimy brick wall, schematic in its suggestion of something prison-like and that that prison may be more in the mind of Raskolnikov than actual. The fact that the wall is decorated (or disfigured) by an axe hanging ominously from a noose-like rope is a material reminder to the audience of the drama's title. Simple but effective. So was the sound design, from the suggestion of an aggravating bluebottle to a brief moment of wary music and later the plucking of a balalaika string.
Each of our three actors is skilful and passionate. Mr Butler's Raskolnikov is a crop-haired scarecrow in frayed brown coat and tattered trousers. He had the haggard look of a Franciscan ascetic, a character from an El Greco canvas. He spoke with impassioned sincerity, and he made his description of a dream, wherein a horse was bludgeoned to death, both frightening and captivating in its pointing to meaning both political and indicative of private agony. Mr Fisher's Porfiry is an insinuating official, an interrogator posing as an interlocutor as he "dear boy-ed" his prey. The script and Mr Fisher's playing of it capture Porfiry's playful vanity as he invites Raskolnikov to entrap himself and then confess, rather than stooping to stronger-arm tactics. The actor varied his tone of voice cleverly, and as the vodka-soaked father never overplayed his hand, as stage drunks wearisomely tend to do. As Sonia, Ms Jacobus caught her reality as abused victim, but also showed how her religious faith, her love for Raskolnikov and her native determination could lead to positive action. There was also telling emphasis in her extended narration of the story of the Raising of Lazarus from John 11: 1–44.
The subject matter of this distillation of Crime and Punishment may be chilling, even harrowing. But its lesson that humanity can triumph over delusions of power is a timeless and heartening one. Those lucky folk in possession of a ticket for Corpus Christ Owlets' production can prepare themselves for a sophisticated and enthralling treat.