Production photography: Clare Hawley

BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is Arrive. Devise. Repeat’s latest production. It is seductive in the scale of its ambition and engrossing in its elevated commitment to the exploration of Dostoevsky’s 900-page narrative defence of rationalism.  But it’s a tough sell.

The play was written (1981) by British playwright Richard Crane and it has been lauded and excoriated by turn and I find myself torn about the success of the text.  In Act 1 specifically.  There was a Glasgow revival this October which received mixed reviews.  Arrive. Devise. Repeat appear to have been inspired by some elements of that production:  the “nation rooted in soil” concept for a dirt floor, for example.  But they have avoided aspects such as the use of the original choral music: which sounds horribly dirgey.

Instead we have an intelligent and thought-provoking, if somewhat imperfect, elucidation of the debate between religion and the possibilities of mankind’s emancipation from it. Formed around a story of 3, possibly 4 brothers, the Karamazovs of the title.  The father, Fydor, is dissolute and in conflict with one son, Dmitry over an inheritance and a woman.  There is a possible illegitimate son in Smerdyakov.  There is also Ivan, a neophyte nihilist and Alyosha, a neophyte priest.  The stage is set for ideas to clash.

And it’s a sparse set on a vast stage with only a hanging tree, dead and inverted in the centre above the earthen floor.  With the malleability of the soil, the cast are able to “build defences” and lie in graves.  There is wallowing and throwing in the air and they get dirty.   This pictorialisation is, in fact, one of the things that detracted from my full embracing of the production.

It is a little literal in interpretation.  Around the narrative is a semblance of parable like monologues in which we are made privy to inner ethical dilemmas.  This is, after all, a discussion of free will. And in Act 1, I needed to immerse in the monologues and their import and not to be led as much by the acting out, especially of adverbial phrases and nouns.

In the same way the rushed delivery of Fydor in the opening scenes did not give me room for thought or allow me to see the actor’s thought processes.  The responses being so quickly reactive to any other dialogue.  The direction was somewhat heavy handed in this regard.  Victor Kalka’s direction is very impressive though when, aided by narrow lighting states, the cast were confined and quieter in places.  That is when the meditative and melancholy themes, emotional rather than distanced, were more available to the audience.

However, almost all of those problems disappeared in Act 2.  Made easier by the material, the story elements ascended and I was enthralled and drawn into the intimacy of the actor’s work.

Patrick Howard brings Dmitry to life with an infectious laugh and cynicism that is warm and comic.  His work as the angel/devil figure is charming and yet moderated within the whole.  It could easily be a star turn but Kalka holds him nicely within the strong ensemble.  Alice Birbara plays Ivan with intensity and presence and her Inquisitor speech is resolutely powerful.

Lucia May really has created a lovely character in Smerdyakov.  We appreciate his childlikeness, his “humble servant and instrument” machinations.  Also, a despair deriving from patrimony and filial issues that gives depth to his attachment to Ivan. The cast is completed by Ryan Devlin who has a difficult task in portraying the piously inconsequential Alyosha.  His work, however, in the direct speech ‘Judicial Error’ of Act 2 is gripping and worth going to the production for.

In fact, all of Act 2 is exceptional and one of the reasons why I would recommend this production.

The production elements are cohesive: with the lighting (Liam O’Keefe) serving the production well, despite an occasional overstatement …  like the use of green for vomiting drunkenness.  There are strip LEDs on the floor which are effectively used to eliminate shadows and resonate the lofty themes as they show the whole height of the performance space.  Loft to cellar in the text but heaven and earth in the subtext.

There are some very good moments of audio in the production (Ryan Devlin).  The whoosh quietly under that becomes more threatening as the woman is threatened was terrific.  As was the vaguely female tinkle of the score during the Grushenka and Katerina scene and I really appreciated the low Jazz standard behind the angel/devil sequence.  The use of practical mics was a neat touch to give gravitas and variety.

The costumes are neutral, non-descript but there is a touch of red as befits a Russian story.  The female actors become women characters at one stage and this is achieved with simplicity of design.

BROTHERS KARAMAZOV runs about 100 minutes and has an interval so you need have no fear of a long night.  But don’t think for a minute that Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is dumbed down or humbled into entertainment.  The production is rich with moral humanism  and replete with ideas that will provoke arguments all the way home.

It continues at PACT, 107 Railway Parade, Erskineville NSW 2043, until 16th December.

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