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.”


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.

Review: The Kite Runner at Wyndham’s Theatre

Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, published in 2003, is a modern classic. A story about friendship, betrayal and redemption, it’s sold millions of copies worldwide, and was made into an award-winning movie in 2007, before being adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler two years later.

(It’s also one of my favourite novels, so I didn’t wait around until press night to see the play on its arrival at Wyndham’s Theatre just before Christmas. Consequently this review is based on one of the earliest previews, and it’s possible some aspects of the show may have changed since then.)

Photo credit: Robert Workman
Photo credit: Robert Workman

The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir and Hassan – one the son of a rich businessman, the other the son of his Hazara servant – whose close friendship is shattered in one shocking moment of betrayal. More than 20 years later, after fleeing the Soviet invasion and starting a new life in America with his father, Amir receives a call that offers him a chance of redemption… but to take it he must return to Afghanistan and confront the demons of his past.

It’s a story that skilfully interweaves Amir’s personal journey with the historical and political story of his country, and Giles Croft’s production faithfully follows that same narrative. While Amir (Ben Turner, who plays both Afghan child and American adult) shares his account of events, there are frequent reminders of the home he left behind – but which, despite his efforts to move on, never left him. Tabla player Hanif Khan provides percussive accompaniment throughout, while Barney George’s set features a huge kite, on to which is projected beautiful backdrop imagery (designed by William Simpson), and which becomes a symbol of the culture and passion that united the two friends, but also the fateful day that tore them apart.

Said kite also mercifully shields our view of the traumatic pivotal moment, but Amir’s reaction to and description of it evoke all the horror I remember feeling the first time I read the novel. Because this is far from an easy story; there are a few laughs and one particularly joyful scene in Act 2 (though even this has a shadow of sadness to it), but the most powerful moments are undoubtedly those that shock us and break our hearts. Much like any tragedy – personal or national – the glimmer of hope in the play’s closing scene can’t undo the damage that’s been done.

Photo credit: Robert Workman
Photo credit: Robert Workman

As both narrator and main character in a play lasting nearly three hours, Ben Turner has quite a task, but he performs it to perfection – at times you can almost see the guilt weighing on his shoulders. But while Amir is the voice and conscience of the story, its heart lies in the people around him: Hassan (Andrei Costin), who remains unfailingly loyal despite his betrayal; his wife Soraya (Lisa Zahra), who hears his story and forgives him; his father (Emilio Doorgasingh), with whom he finally develops a mutual respect; and Rahim Khan (Nicholas Khan), the family friend who offers him his chance of redemption. Through their eyes – and the excellent cast performances – we see a different Amir: a man not destroyed by guilt, but with the chance to be good again.

I know I say this every time, but seeing an adaptation of a beloved book is always a gamble. Fortunately, I have no complaints about The Kite Runner, which is as thought-provoking, powerful and emotionally scarring (I mean that in a good way… I think) as Hosseini’s novel. Yes, it’s a long evening – but it’s worth every second.

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Review: Anna Karenina at Jack Studio Theatre

If, like me, you’ve often thought about reading Tolstoy but been put off just by looking at the list of characters, let alone the number of pages, help is at hand. In their first non-Shakespeare production, Arrows & Traps have pulled off the astonishing achievement of compressing a 1,000-page novel into a little under three hours, with a cast of just eight, whilst still remaining faithful to the plot.

Anna, the respected wife of provincial governor Karenin (Adam Elliott), abandons her duty and reputation when she’s swept into a passionate affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Will Mytum). Meanwhile landowner Levin has money and power, and the freedom to do anything he likes, but is desperately in love with Kitty (Pippa Caddick), the woman he believes will give his life purpose. Anna and Levin’s lives fit together to make a whole, with each possessing what the other longs for, and Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, directed by Ross McGregor, highlights this synergy beautifully. The stories unfold in parallel, and though Anna and Levin have never met, from the outset each becomes the voice of reason for the other, the one they confide in and from whom they seek help and comfort. Their dialogue also serves a second, more practical purpose, filling in the gaps with regard to setting and context, so that each time one asks the other, ‘Where are you now?’ it’s as much for our benefit as theirs.

Anna Karenina

As a result, the production needs little in the way of set or props, and the story is carried almost wholly by the fantastic cast. Most of them take on multiple roles, but keep them perfectly distinct, so we always know who we’re looking at, and even the comparatively minor roles are memorable (I particularly enjoyed Hannah Wilder’s giggling, superficial Princess Betsy). The two leads, Ellie Jacob and David Paisley, each capture to perfection the essence of their character: Anna’s charm and quick wit, which enchant everyone she meets, have a similar effect on the audience, while Levin wins our sympathy as a good, honest man radiating quiet desperation at the lack of direction in his life.

A third plot thread involves Anna’s adulterous brother Stiva (Spencer Lee Osborne) and his long-suffering wife Dolly, who’s played by Cornelia Baumann in a truly heartbreaking performance. Of all the stories, Dolly’s is perhaps the most devastating, as she lets Anna convince her to remain in her unfaithful marriage, and consequently ends up feeling she’s never really lived at all.

What’s particularly impressive about Arrows & Traps’ production is the way it somehow manages to be both intimate and epic, getting right to the heart of the characters but also capturing the scale of the novel. There are a few moments – the ballroom, the races, and in particular Anna and Vronsky in the snow – that feel almost cinematic, which is quite an achievement on such a tiny little stage.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina has a bit of everything – romance, tragedy (by the way, the death scenes are brilliantly done, and in one case almost a bit too convincing), drama, social commentary, and even a few moments of comedy to lighten the mood. With 1,000 pages of text to condense down, it’s no surprise that this is an intense and gripping production – but one that I’d happily go and see again tomorrow.

It’s even made me consider reading the novel. Well, maybe…

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Review: Jane Eyre at the National Theatre

(Disclaimer: this review was written based on the first preview earlier this month.)

How do you begin adapting a story as epic as Jane Eyre? By making it even more epic, obviously. Charlotte Brontë’s classic and much-loved novel already covers about twenty years in total, beginning when its heroine is 10 years old – but Sally Cookson’s production at the National Theatre goes one better, taking us all the way back to the start of the story. 

The opening scene reveals baby Jane’s tragic origins, as she loses first her parents and then her uncle, ultimately ending up the unhappy charge of her aunt Reed at Gateshead. And it’s here that we pick up the familiar story: a passionate and independent young girl, rejected and mistreated by almost everyone who should care for her, until she finally finds love with Mr Rochester, her brooding and brilliantly sarcastic employer. (Did I mention that Mr Rochester is one of my favourite literary leading men?) But all is not as it seems at Thornfield, and when a shocking secret is revealed, it seems Jane will once again be denied her happy ending. The story is part romance, part thriller, and full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right to the end.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre
Maggie Tagney, Felix Hayes, Laura Elphinstone, Madeleine Worrall, Simone Saunders and Craig Edwards. Credit: Manuel Harlan

This adaptation, a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic, is not for the faint-hearted (or weak-bladdered); lasting three and a half hours, it sets out to tell the story in all its detail, and with seemingly limitless energy. The company of incredibly hard-working actors must burn some serious calories, as they walk, run and climb ceaselessly all over Michael Vale’s ladder-strewn set, which resembles a big adventure playground. This constant movement is used particularly effectively in the transitions between scenes, filling in the gaps between the action, whether they last weeks, months or even years.

The play had no script when rehearsals began; it was devised by the company – so it’s no surprise that the small cast work perfectly together. A very physical piece of theatre, it feels at times more like a ballet than a play, the choreography working seamlessly with Benji Bower’s quirky choices of music. (I never would have thought a Gnarls Barkley song would work in a Victorian classic, which just goes to show what I know.) Singer Melanie Marshall stands out a mile in her glamorous red ball gown, an intense but eerily calm Bertha Mason who can wreak havoc with a single glance.

Felix Hayes (Rochester) and Madeleine Worrall (Jane). Credit: Manuel Harlan
Felix Hayes (Rochester) and Madeleine Worrall (Jane). Credit: Manuel Harlan

Felix Hayes’ Mr Rochester is a bit less elegant and a bit more foul-mouthed than we’re used to, but with an appealing, childlike vulnerability underneath his bushy beard. And Craig Edwards offers some much-needed light relief as a delightfully convincing Pilot the dog; any time he’s on stage the mood in the auditorium palpably lifts, and it’s hard not to watch him as he bounds around the stage. But undoubtedly the star of the show is Madeleine Worrall; she has all the impetuous passion of Jane as a child (so much so that you forget she’s a grown woman), but also the quiet, restrained emotion of the adult. Some of her best moments are when she says nothing at all, but lets her incredibly expressive face and movement do all the talking.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre
Madeleine Worrall (Jane)

While there’s no doubt that this is a beautiful and very artistic production, it does occasionally feel that with so much time devoted to Jane’s inner monologue (other cast members providing the conflicting voices in her mind) and the passing of time, some of the most significant events are dealt with incredibly briefly – to the point where, if you didn’t know the story, you might wonder what had just happened. (Certainly the people behind us found it necessary to spend a frustrating amount of time discussing the plot in loud whispers.) So, if you haven’t read the book, it might be worth at least Googling the story before you go, to prevent confusion (for you) and irritation (for other people).

This new production is highly original, and not at all what I expected from an adaptation of one of my favourite novels – but that’s what makes it exciting. Without the distraction of spectacular sets or special effects, it becomes a psychological study of one woman’s personal journey, in which every other character and event feels secondary to that purpose. The play may move at a gentle pace, but it’s certainly never boring, as it breathes new life into both the classic story and its inspirational central character.

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