THEATRE / Brothers grim

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The Independent Culture
As though to trumpet the theatricality of this adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel, designer Simon Higlett has contrived one of the most arresting opening scenes the Royal Exchange will have seen. The darkness is broken by piercing light streaming from a huge incense-bearing thurible swinging across the harsh boards of the stage. These planks slope towards a navel of mud where the naked Fyodor Karamazov stands caked from head to toe. Between this gothic terror of the muddy pit and the threatening pendulum, puny man vainly struts.

And in Philip Madoc's excellent performance a wondrously stentorian and distended vanity it is. He is palpably the virus of what his son, Ivan, diagnoses as 'the son's disease': the desire to kill his father. That the father is killed - seemingly by one of the brothers, his head pulped inevitably into that mud - provides the spine of a thriller from which Dostoyevsky could branch his allegorical studies from life and his philosophical debates.

The fierce army lieutenant Mitya is the brother who most obviously strives with the father within him. He is gripped by the same sexual demand, and indeed by the same woman - the thrillingly scarlet Grushenka. Tom Mannion is vividly impressive as Mitya and equally matched by Lorraine Ashbourne. Their more and more dangerously abandoned, sensual sword dance (choreography Wendy Allnutt) is truly enthralling. In comparison Mitya's claim also to love Grushenka's demure opposite, Katerina (Louise Lombard), is never so convincing. This relationship evidently suffers from the remarkable compression of Gerard McLarnon's spare but emphatic adaptation.

Perhaps surprisingly, the element of philosophical and theological debate works well. Michael Mueller's Ivan, the atheist professor, accomplishes the massive set-piece in which he urges his rejection of God upon the third brother, the gentle monk Alyosha (Ian Shaw), with a force that is clear and convincing. Nevertheless we can see in his livid insistence how his zeal undermines him. Here again one could really do with more, especially something that would bring the marginal Alyosha further into the fraught equation. His vision which strives to transcend this fetid world does not have the substance of the antagonist position.

The muted, unfocused ending does not rise to match that astonishing opening. But, this aside, Braham Murray's production is sharp and often exciting - an improbable venture well justified.

Continues to 28 Feb (061-833 9833)