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A Soviet Director Electrifies London

The New York Times, 25th September 1983

Robert Cushman

LONDON - The early autumn sensation in London’s theater is a stage version of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Dramatizations of this novel are nor uncommon, but this one comes to us with special authority. It is staged and adapted by one of Russia’s leading directors, Yuri Lyubimov; it is, in fact, a re-creation, with an English cast, of a production that for five years has been in the repertory of his celebrated Moscow theater, the avant-garden Taganka.

My Lyubimov is 65 but he still comes to London with the reputation of an enfant terrible. He uses experimental techniques and he has attempted work that has satirized Soviet society. The Taganka has had constant problems with Moscow’s censorship. After 20 years of struggle, frustration recently led Mr Lyubimov to offer his resignation as head of the theater,an offer that was not accepted. He has an international reputation, but when he has been invited to work abroad - either as a guest director or with his own company - the Russian authorities have often refused him permission.

In a recent interview with The Times of London he said, “Every time I go abroad it is a complex, tense and humiliating situation.” He told me that this year he had been informed, “Yes, you may go on tour for the Taganka’s 20th anniversary; you may go to Omsk.” It took five years to set up the London production of “Crime and Punishment,” he said.

After the first night, a Soviet Embassy official in London said to Mr Lyubimov, “Well, we’ve had the crime, the punishment will come when you get back to Moscow.” “At that point,” said Mr Lyubimov “I stopped our conversation  because he had insulted me in the presence of a large number of witnesses - not just me but the prestige of my country. I don’t think he spoke with high-level authority; he was not a diplomat, just an irresponsible, badly-bred, local official.” The public controversy led to speculation about whether Mr Lyubimov would defect, but the director subsequently denied any such intention.

“Crime and Punishment” has not been, in Russia, one of Mr Lyubimov’s most controversial productions; at least not compared with his last three projects, which were all banned by the authorities before they even opened. But to Soviet opinion it has been disturbing enough. Mr Lyubimov’s interpretation of the book runs counter to Soviet orthodoxy, which sees the central Rasholnikov - the student who batters to death an old pawnbroker and her sister - as a revolutionary before his time; a distorted idealist, perhaps, but essentially the victim of Czarist oppression. At the end of the London production, however, the actor playing Raskolnikov steps out of character and reads a blood-curdling line from an essay on the novel actually written by a Moscow schoolchild. It says, “Raskolnikov was right to kill the old woman; pity he got caught.” The Moscow production went further, and confronted the audience with a display of real schoolbooks filled with student essays, all regurgitating the official line. Mr Lyubimov says in the audience feel “very uncomfortable.”

For him the book is “a cry of the soul against murder”, a Christian cry. “You can’t consider yourself a higher judge of people; that’s for God,” he says. This is not an interpretation likely to arouse much opposition in the /west. What has stopped London audiences in their tracks is the immense theatricality of the concept and the execution. This “Crime and Punishment” is one of the most sustained nightmares ever put upon a stage, and yet is completely free from sensationalism.

The production is dominated by a door: a bloodstained door that dances about the stage, moving from the vertical to the diagonal to the horizontal, and with a cruel habit of revealing characters who would far rather stay hidden. It seems to be the door of Raskolnikov’s own room, where he crouches after the murder, but it also suggests that door that he insanely left open while committing his otherwise perfect crime. The play begins after the murder, but it does a certain amount of cutting-back to things that precede it in the novel. For the most part, though, the play moves quickly and chronologically through the events that end with Raskolnikov's surrender and imprisonment. Its cross-cutting techniques may suggest collage, but it is actually pretty faithful to the original narrative.

Atmosphere is created by harsh stabs of music and lighting; the characters are liable to pick up the stage lights and shine them on each other or the audience. The imagery is half that of the confessional, half inquisition, and it creates a peculiar frenzied climate for the actors. Most critics have commented that the cast reaches emotional peaks generally considered inaccessible to British players. But amid terrifying trappings - and Mr Lyubimov insisted on the actual music and the actual props from the beginning of rehearsals - they would have to. There is no calculation about it.

Mr Lyubimov - a jovially sardonic visionary - cast the play on a brief preliminary visit to London four months ago. He secured an extraordinary company of 20, comprising some of the busiest actors in London. (And not working for West End salaries: “Crime and Punishment” is at the Lyric Theater in outlying Hammersmith.)

Raskolnikov is played by Michael Pennington, who two years ago was Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was a notably benign performance; this one is ruthlessly uncompassionate, almost to excess. The harshness, he says, was the director’s choice (“the most unsentimental director imaginable”) Mr Lyubimov is also very much an actor’s director. Until 20 years ago he was a performer himself, and a very successful one. He directs, unfashionably, by demonstration. Mr Pennington describes his “sketching something in the air, like a Hirschfeld drawing,” for the actor to flesh out. Mr Lyubimov speaks no English, but his Russian is torrential. With two interpreters straining to keep up with him, rehearsals were, in Mr Pennington’s words, “pretty noisy.”

The “exciting whiff in the nostril” that Mr Pennington says he scented when he auditioned, inspired him to travel at his own expense to see the Moscow production and to starve himself to fit his own picture of the penniless student Raskolnikov. His face is now skull-like, awesome on stage and terrifying off it. The same fierceness infects the other performances. This must be the only adaptation to make a strong un-mawkish character of Sonya (played by Veronica Roberts), the pious prostitute who persuades Raskolnikov to give himself up.

There are weaknesses. Some characters make little impression or are even confusing; the constant intensity risks monotony, and though the techniques are startling they are not new. This is what one expects a Slavonic avant-garde play to look and sound like. But this production takes the Dostoyevskyan atmosphere and makes a theatrical fact. It shows us the crowded streets and fetid rooms of St Petersburg, and gives their inhabitants the dimensions of King Lear on his heath.

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