Interview: Ross McGregor, Crime and Punishment

Next month, the Brockley Jack Studio will play host once again to Offie-nominated Arrows and Traps for their tenth production. Following the company’s critically acclaimed Anna Karenina in 2016, director Ross McGregor is taking on another Russian classic in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus.

Crime and Punishment is the story of Raskolnikov, a young law student who commits a double murder, and the effect that this act has on him,” explains Ross. “But it’s also the story of the police detective trying to catch him, and the woman trying to save him. It’s very psychological, and in modern terms comes across as a crime thriller. What makes it different is that we see almost everything from the perspective of the murderer, as opposed to the policeman. So a nice inversion on the Agatha Christie formula. It’s not really a whodunnit’, but a ‘willhegetawaywithit’.

“To sum up, it’s an engrossing psychological journey into the mind of a killer, adapted from a book that you’ve heard of but never read, thus enabling you to sound clever afterwards with your friends whilst still being done and dusted by 9:15pm.”

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The fact that the Arrows’ first show of 2017 is based on a Russian novel isn’t a coincidence: “This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, so Russian literature and drama is going to be big this year. We thought we’d get in early before you’re all drowning in Sisters, Seagulls and Orchards. I had such immense joy doing another Russian adaptation last year, with our Anna Karenina, and this is very much in a similar style, to suit the space and aid with telling a massive story in a short space of time.

“There’s something wonderfully captivating about Russian literature. It’s so passionate and tense, everyone’s got these huge sweeping emotions, men fight duels and go to war rather than apologise, it’s all hubris and unrequited loves, and illicit passions, outbreaks of sudden war, and wounded egos, and lost fortunes, it all makes for wonderful drama. You open a Russian novel, and you can almost immediately taste the snowflakes and vodka.”

Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ award-winning adaptation condenses Dostoyevsky’s 600-page novel into a 90-minute three-hander. “This adaptation is impeccably strong, and was very striking back at the first read, so that’s really why I wanted to do it,” says Ross. “It’s an incredible take on an iconic piece of literature. It’s won various new writing awards in New York, and been performed all over the world. With so many play adaptations of famous novels – and I’ve read a lot – they try to cram the novel into a play format, writing countless little quick scenes that do little more than capture the plot, but rarely the nuance of the authorial voice or even the characters themselves. This adaptation, similar to the Anna Karenina we did last year, takes the novel as a starting point but constructs something new that is inherently theatrical. It uses devices that wouldn’t work in a novel, and stands on its own two feet. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy this. In fact, it manages to capture the main character Raskolnikov, at times, dare I say it, better than Dostoyevsky did.”

This production has plenty to look forward to for the Arrows’ devoted fanbase – and it also has a few surprises in store: “It’s an entirely new cast, primarily,” reveals Ross. “They’re all stunning additions to the Arrows team. I still adore the established Arrows team, they feel like my family, but I thought it was important to keep things fresh – and particularly since last year was so busy for our core members, it’s good to change things up from time to time.

“Returning audience members will be greeted with some familiar touches, however. It’s still an Arrows show, so I like to include some Easter eggs for the fans of previous productions. Ten shows in, and I think we have a certain in-house style when it comes to theatre, that will still be there, of course.”

Working with a cast that’s not only much smaller than on previous productions, but also entirely new, presents Ross with an exciting challenge – but it’s not without its risks. “It’s incredibly scary. And exciting. I think those are very symbiotic sensations,” he admits. “After the rep season at the end of last year, I felt I’d painted myself into a bit of an artistic corner. We’d done two massive Shakespeare shows (Othello and Twelfth Night) in rep with the same cast on alternate nights and received a lot of critical success for the project, and so for me the answer to ‘What next?’ didn’t come easily.

“In some ways, we’d grown too big, or were in danger of being ‘that company known for the spectacle Shakespeares’. Which is lovely, and fine, but I realised that I had to change tack quickly if I was going to keep things interesting for audiences and for myself. I had to step away from my Shakespeare comfort blanket, I had to strip away all the history and artifice and just have three actors in a room with a table for 90 minutes – and see if I could still make it interesting, could I still make the old Arrows magic without all my usual tricks. I wanted to get back to a theatre that was more raw, more honest.

“So what a challenge it’s going to be. It’s one of the most famous books of all time. It’s a massive story. The adaptation is blisteringly unforgiving on its performers. As an actor there’s nowhere to hide. As a director there’s no safety net. This is our tenth production in three years, and I think it’s going to be the hardest one yet. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”

Book now for Crime and Punishment at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 7th-25th February.

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