The squalor unfolds before us like a wound, the stage stripped back and opened up to the red brick and rusted heating duct bones of the backstage area, the ten-strong ensemble cavorting around the fringes of the action at all times, populating the dive bars and crumbling tenements of 19 century St Petersburg with life and music and threat. At the heart of it all waits destitute former law student Raskolnikov, seemingly without hope or options as he ponders killing his merciless pawnbroker on the other side of the damp-flaked door before him.
Of course the urge might be to discuss the potentially unstageable nature of Dostoyevsky’s five-hundred page ‘whydunit’ meditation on the causes of murder, but the truth is that writer Chris Hannan and director Dominic Hill (also the Citizens’ artistic director) make it look easy. It’s both a classic come to life and an urgent new work which develops its own style and language rather than slavishly imitating the text and it’s all the better for it. Much of the credit here should go to Colin Richmond for a breathtakingly open and sparse set design filled with powerful interventions, like the blood-streaked hanging rubber strips which disguise an act of butchery.
Lead Adam Best is suitably conflicted as Raskolnikov, at once a vagrant and a man of education, who restlessly turns over his choice to kill twice – once through a perceived moral imperative, once through naked self-preservation – in a series of charged and philosophical semi-monologues which are lent hooting backing from the choral internal voices around him, the cast playing Nicola Kodjabashia’s Russian folk score to match the mood. It’s almost self-consciously theatrical, but at no point does this cross over into indulgence when exposing Raskolnikov’s turmoil.
There’s a convincing lightness of touch throughout, in fact, from the sense of urgent physicality to an ever-present black humour best exemplified by George Costigan’s almost clowning police investigator Petrovich and his bittersweet take on down and out former civil servant Marmeladov, father of Raskolnikov’s nominal saviour, the wide-eyed prostitute Sonya. Ideas are richly and confidently unpacked throughout – on the line between logic and madness, the effect of familial peer pressure upon sense of self, and the process of understanding a grave decision and coming to terms with it – while contemporary resonances considering the desperation of poverty and the futility of socialism in a society ruled by strength and economic aggression ring out.