Signing up to review this production, I was slightly nervous about what I might be letting myself in for – a 500+ page long exploration of guilt and morality compressed into an hour and a half of theatre, performed by a cast of just three students, in the studio space of the Burton Taylor? This production could have fallen very flat, but thanks to the ingenuity of the staging choices and the powerful performances of the three actors, it proved not only dramatically compelling and thought-provoking, but also genuinely moving.
The play centres around Raskolnikov, a poverty-stricken young intellectual living in St Petersburg, who murders an old pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. In the show’s pre-set, the axe, hung from chains at the back of the stage becomes, Chekhov’s Gun-style, a constant reminder for the audience of its eventual use. The contrasting physicality of Raskolnikov (played beautifully by Staś Butler), a shivering, panic-stricken wreck dwarfed in the folds of a greasy greatcoat, and Tom Fisher’s sly and sinuous Inspector Porfiry created a powerful tension and presence right from the start. Special mention must go to Naomi Sovnovsky’s work on costumes, convincingly bringing to life Dostoevsky’s Russia of freezing student bedsits and dingy police stations.
Each of the three actors acquit themselves (so to speak) commendably. Fisher’s smooth-talking police officer and pathetic drunk contrasts nicely with Nicole Jacobus’ skilful portrayal of multiple female characters, most notably the religious Sonia. Butler, however, stole the show, investing Raskolnikov with deep humanity and pathos in his guilt, fear and desperation, as well as powerful oratorical force in some of his set-piece monologues. At times it felt as if the philosophical dialogue dragged for a touch too long, but moments of emotional clarity always intervened at the right times, particularly in the tense interchanges between Porfiry and Raskolnikov.
Director Frances Livesey must be commended for her clever use of the BT’s limited space, and Linette Chan for subtle lighting changes allowing transitions between the police cell and a range of other locations. The music, though beautifully composed by Natasha Frank, sometimes seemed overly intrusive or emotionally manipulative – especially when the actors were more than capable of hitting the right notes on their own. This is a minor criticism however, as the Crime and Punishment team take on challenging and serious material and make it work with limited resources and time. As an exploration of guilt and morality, subjects not often tackled on the Oxford stage, and as a deeply human portrayal of poverty and desperation, this production succeeds on all levels.