Theatre: Sympathy for The Devils

"The Devils must, must, be brought back to Britain," the Financial Times insisted after the Maly Theatre premiered its seven-and-a-half-hour Dostoevsky adaptation at the 1994 Glasgow Mayfest as part of a five-work showcase laid out across five UK cities. That demand is finally being met.

From today, for a week, the St Petersburg company returns with the production which is now called The Possessed (right). It might be described as the crowning glory of that retrospective season, if it wasn't for the fact that the company is so consistently excellent that the usual critical superlatives sound faint-hearted.

Peter Brook has described the Maly as "the finest ensemble theatre in Europe". Down the phone from France, Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl, which staged The Winter's Tale there last year, states simply: "The experience of seeing them bowled us over in 1986 and was one of the major influences on our style. Their acting is something we constantly aspire to. What is unique is that they go on and on perfecting their work, which you never see in the West. We're talking about a completely different level of commitment."

Neil Wallace, who ran Glasgow's Tramway theatre back then, and who has taken on the monumental task of bringing the production over again, has no hesitation in using the word "masterpiece".

It bears, he says, all the hallmarks of being the project that the company and its iconic artistic director, Lev Dodin, have been most obsessive about.

For a company renowned, since Dodin took over the tiny state-run theatre in 1983, for its painstaking rehearsal periods and in-depth research, that's saying something. The 50-strong cast utterly immersed itself in Dostoevsky's shadowy world of political reformers and backstabbing nihilistic terrorists. "They spent three years working on it before they showed it to the public in 1991," Wallace explains. "In that time, the main roles changed hands several times. When it came to the Tramway, there were all sorts of temptations to compare it to Brook's Mahabharata because of its thoroughness, the way every feature is thought through.

"You can see the ensemble's strengths from the first minute of the action," he continues. "These actors have been working together for 15 years, and they know the work so well that they just need one day of rehearsal on the day before it opens." He admits that, even with hour-long intervals - in which a variety of Russian delicacies, from vodka to blinis, will be on sale - it's still a marathon experience. "Unless people take a dislike to the darkness of Dostoevsky's world, I'd be very surprised if people don't think it's one of the most memorable experiences of their life. The book is not 500 pages of relentless Russian gloom, it's 500 pages of extraordinary prophetic and visionary writing about what totalitarianism and fanaticism does to human beings. Clearly it is relevant now as it was in the mid-19th century.

"This is more than just a lavish Nicholas Nickleby experience. While that proved that Dickens was an innate dramatist and allowed the RSC to show their ensemble strengths, this is a tour de force on every level."

If you don't believe the hype, you may be kicking yourself for years to come.

"The Possessed", Barbican Theatre (0171-638 8891), today and Sun 11am, 3.30pm, 7.45pm; then in rep to 5 Jul, pounds 6-pounds 30

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