Review: Crime and Punishment at Jack Studio Theatre

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, Arrows & Traps have got in early with their production of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But put aside any off-putting thoughts of epic 600-page novels; this short, sharp adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus cuts straight to the heart of the story and is all over in a gripping hour and a half.

Focusing less on either the crime or the punishment, instead this adaptation gives us a disturbing insight into the mind of a murderer during the days between the two. By the time the play begins, the murder – of an elderly pawnbroker and her sister – has already been committed, and Raskolnikov (Christopher Tester) finds himself drawn into a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare with police inspector Porfiry (Stephen MacNeice), who’s convinced of his guilt. In desperation Raskolnikov turns to Sonia (Christina Baston), a virtuous young woman forced into prostitution to save her family, who offers his only chance of redemption.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Flashbacks give the audience an opportunity to piece together the events that preceded the murder, as well as the crime itself – but also demonstrate the fractured state of mind of the killer, who himself looks back in an attempt to justify his actions. In the present, Raskolnikov explains to Porfiry that he believes some crimes – including this one – are necessary for the greater good. This is the debate at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and Campbell and Columbus’ adaptation gets straight down to it, mercilessly axeing several additional characters and plotlines, without losing any of the essence of what the story’s all about.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled a brilliant new cast for this production. Stephen MacNeice is an affable Porfiry, a self-confessed “freeform” investigator whose complex relationship with the suspected murderer begins to feel more like that of father and son than detective and criminal. As Sonia, Christina Baston has a physical fragility that contrasts with the spiritual and moral strength that sustain her – before transforming in flashbacks into the hunched, sneering old pawnbroker who’s about to meet a messy end. But this is ultimately Raskolnikov’s story, and Christopher Tester is captivating as the tormented killer. Despite being a violent criminal driven by his own arrogance, he’s also charming, articulate and capable of great kindness… and so like the biblical Lazarus who’s referenced throughout the play, we desperately want to believe he has the potential for salvation.

Anyone who’s seen Arrows & Traps in action before knows that they have a signature style – but they’re also not afraid to take a risk and step into new territory. Crime and Punishment is the company’s 10th production, and in a lot of ways is quite different to anything they’ve done before, with a cast of just three actors and a running time of only 90 minutes. Yet this is also recognisably an Arrows production, not just in its strong acting performances, but in the use of contemporary music, atmospheric lighting (courtesy of Karl Swinyard) and a dreamlike quality, particularly in movement director Will Pinchin’s exquisite slow-motion murder scene. (I never thought I’d be able to describe watching two old ladies get bludgeoned with an axe as beautiful, but there we go.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

So what we really get with this production is a super-concentrated Arrows experience, stripped back to basics but bearing all the hallmarks of a company and director who know exactly what they’re doing. An intense psychological drama, the play has the entire audience holding our breath throughout, and asks some very real, and relevant, questions about the nature of crime and whether there’s actually any such thing as good and evil.

Think you know Crime and Punishment? Think again.

Crime and Punishment is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 25th February.

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