Fernando Sakanassi’s production of David Gaitán’s 2009 play, that originally premiered in Mexico in Spanish, is described as a ‘work-in-progress’, but its modern telling of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel feels tight, pacey and well-considered for its studio space and fringe limited run as part of the Actors’ Centre’s Latin American Season.
With an ensemble cast of five, anchored by Hana Kelly in the titular role (which Gaitán has gender-swapped from the novel’s young male student, Rodion Raskolnikov, and re-named ‘Raskolnikova’), Sakanassi creates two worlds. The first world is a naturalistic police procedural in which the audience is well aware of the true culprit of the crime of murdering the pawnbroker (who is kept as a woman per the 19th-century Russian novel) but in which the suspense is derived from the unfolding of if and when will the law catch up with her? The second world, simultaneously conveyed, is of Raskolnikova’s inner-conscious – with conflicting guilt, arrogance, self-justification, anxiety and horror – played out by the four other cast members multi-rolling as a sort of abstract psychological chorus. The lighting is simple but very effective, as are the costumes. The cast of fellow students/would-be legal defenders, sleuths, bureaucrats and other suspects transform into the criminal co-conspirators of Raskolnikova’s inner-world.
For those not familiar with the Dostoevsky plot, it may add an intriguing murkiness to whether or not there is a literal gang of thugs who assisted Raskolnikova in her brutal deed. However, soon enough, the singularity of the murderer’s actions is revealed, despite the tensions between her motive and the act’s emotional and actual consequences. The cast is strong with excellent humour and range offered by Allessandro Piavani as Kova/Zamiotov; acidic cop-work from Zoe Clayton-Kelly as Olga (and Ras); compelling pathos brought to life by Miriam Khundadze as Sonia (and Kol) and the keen idealism rendered by Jack Tivey (Ni and Razmihan).
Unlike the Arcola’s recent theatrical adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger which sought to ignore 19th-century specificity rather than modernise it nor play within the period, this production retains much of the Dostoevsky plot but makes no bones about giving it a 21st-century setting. Indeed, the day and date of the story is updated to the performance’s date itself. Without having to ladle on gimmicky devices of the modern age, the subtle but decisive updating works very well. It is chilling how the narcissistic division of those entitled to a moral exemption based on their ‘extraordinary’ status has endured with little variation since this story was first told over 150 years ago. Likewise, Julián Mesri’s translation into English feels decisively modern: finding humour and the diction of youth without clouding the play’s central tragedy nor rendering the language overwrought.
At the centre of the play (and the stage, literally) is the female murderer Raskolnikova. By keeping the pawn-broker an old woman (off-stage and posthumous), the crime is now woman-on-woman without any wider consideration of what that might mean versus the young man killing the old lady in the novel. It seems as if the sex of the protagonist has been modified without much of a story about gender appearing. If the reason is simply because it can work with a woman as the Raskolnikov(a) and it’s great to give central lead roles to women, that is fine. But it makes me curious as to why this modification from the original story (especially when the original tale’s other elements remain so present in a preponderance of other ways) isn’t more explored? The murderer’s identity as a woman provides a degree of misdirection in the police procedural world because the investigators presume that an axe-killer would likely be male. Yet, the delusions or assumptions required for this sexist misconception are not explored any further – they are just there. Unlike Chris Bush’s Faustus: That Damned Woman (currently running at the Lyric Hammersmith) which is based entirely on what different reasons would a woman have than a man to sell her soul to the devil, this production of Raskolnikova seems to have little opinion on how might the motives or experiences of the protagonist vary based on the gender of the killer. I would have liked to have got a stronger sense of why, or if, it matters that the arrogant, entitled, Nietzschian urges of the killer belong to a young woman who publishes treatises on her view of morality that ultimately incriminate her.
This production has intrigued and engaged me, largely because it centres on a great story. As a work-in-progress, I’d like most for Sakanassi to develop an even stronger sense of his own voice and reveal it in all his choices underpinned by the outstanding cast he has assembled.
Review by Mary Beer
At the Actors Centre as part of the John Thaw Initiative
until 5 February
Tickets: £7 (£5 Conc.)
Directed by Fernando Skanassi
Written by David Gaitán
Presented by Teatro Nómada
A gripping re-imagining of a Russian classic
Is murder still an unthinkable crime if committed for the greater good of humanity? Raskolnikova, a young revolutionary suffering in poverty, sets out to answer this moral dilemma. The play sees fragments of her deteriorating psyche embodied by four chorus members. Raskolnikova explores language, culture and morality in a way that brings this classic Russian story into the 21st century.
The cast and crew hail from five different continents – The Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, and this rich diversity allows us to explore and develop the play from new and interesting perspectives.
Teatro Nómada has in recent years become an internationally recognised theatre company that aims to bring Latin American theatre to audiences worldwide. Its latest production Juana Inés, recently had an international and European premiere at DespertaLab Festival in Barcelona receiving an ‘International Scenic Creation’ award in 2017.
This would be the European debut of David Gaitan’s Raskolnikova after being produced in México, Singapore and America.
presented by Teatro Nómada
3rd – 5th February 2020