The Pit, London EC2
Opened 6 November, 2008

Playwright Enda Walsh has a thing about nightclubs. In his 1996 breakthrough play Disco Pigs, the climactic events occur in a club; in his most recent, The New Electric Ballroom, characters are forever recalling and trying to relive their nights at the eponymous joint. Now, in his adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, the orgiastic party at which Mitya Karamazov is arrested for his father Fyodor’s murder becomes the opening night of a club which Fyodor has bought for Grushenka, the beloved of both father and son. There seems to be something for Walsh about such environments in which intense consumption and equally intense emotional interaction take us to the meat of things; and since Dostoevsky prefers to put his characters in extremis, one way of compressing such a vast novel is to confine the father, his three acknowledged sons and the fourth illegitimate one, his servant Smerdyakov, along with Grushenka and Mitya’s deserted fiancee Katya, together in the club for the entire second half of the play. Oh, and let’s not forget the music – Public Enemy and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins are not normally associated with Dostoevsky. (Magazine’s “A Song From Under The Floorboards” – that’s Dostoevskian rock, but absent here.)
The adaptation has been made for and with Theatre O, whose rich and often visual work has garnered acclaim in the past. It has to be said that the opening scene almost seems like self-parody, as the company throttle, batter and generally belabour one another in a kind of overture of all the most violent moments to come. I am unconvinced, too, that they successfully work the contrast between these episodes of hyperanimation and the great Dostoevskian themes of God, belief, will, virtue and the like. (Middle brother Ivan’s famous “Grand Inquisitor” fable is present only as a pale shadow in which Ivan himself, rather than his fictitious character, rails against Christ’s alleged shortcomings and betrayals.) The evening overall strikes me as one of those treatments which do not stand autonomous from their source material: the evening’s true impact includes the resonances between the novel and the dramatisation, particular choices of emphasis, excision, parody etc. In other words, the play alone can’t carry the weight of its material. The international company (literally) throw themselves wholeheartedly into the enterprise, but Theatre O have not squared this particular circle.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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