crime and punishment

My granddad has been making the same jokes about himself and his old mates for as long as I can remember. “You know what they say when you get to my age,” he’ll say with a big grin. “Don’t buy any long playing records. Don’t start reading War and Peace.”

Same difference with Crime and Punishment (well, same difference, different Russian, obv). And even at this comparably earlier stage of life I’m quite likely at this juncture to drop dead without ever getting to the end – or even the beginning – of Dostoyevsky’s dark, philosophical tale of a student and the logic he applies to cold-blooded murder.

Crime and Punishment is, apparently, one of the top ten novels people pretend to have read to look smarter. So it’s a good job writer Chris Hannan has been paying attention on our behalf. His new adaptation of the classic, directed by Dominic Hill, makes for a contemplative, textured thriller.

Twinned with Colin Richmond’s set design – stripping everything away to the very back of the stage, including the wings – the look and feel of the production is instantly evocative. The cast awaits the audience upon arrival, dressed in anachronistic 19th century style – think post-rock t-shirts under heavy woollen coats and glittery corsets on the ladies of the night; but it’s subtle, arguably post-apocalyptic in tone.

It has a tense atmosphere, assured and almost stylishly aloof, that brought to mind Stephen Berkhoff’s wonderful production of Oedipus at the Playhouse a couple of years back. This is also probably as they share the device of having all actors on stage throughout, serving as Greek chorus and musical accompaniment as required.

At the heart of it is a breathtaking performance from Adam Best as Raskolnikov – or Rodya, the student whose superiority complex leads to slaughter. With a gentle Irish lilt belying the dark state of mind of our protagonist, the play stands or falls on the audience somehow remaining sympathetic – or at least fascinated – with him, despite the spark of inhumanity that lead to his crimes. Best manages this exceptionally well.

As Rodya attempts to outsmart and double bluff the police, possibly subliminally wanting to be caught as his mind further warps and games are played, the tension is unbearable. If we weren’t hanging on every word, it simply wouldn’t work. George Costigan – Everyman alumni of Rita, Sue and Bob Too – doubles up in roles and acts as if he was born to tread the Playhouse boards. Jessica Hardwick as God-fearing prostitute Sonya, gives a beautiful performance.

The violence, although off stage, and anticipated, is heart-stopping; and the subtle, skilful lighting design of Chris Davey brings a highly defined look to the stage that draws the audience in all the more. Neither is this version – a co-production with the Citizens Theatre Glasgow and Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh – too long, as the one hour 20 minute first act is followed by a shorter second act that on balance makes it no more of a stretch than any other stage show.

Everything about this production makes for finely-balanced, intelligent, and quite brilliant theatre. Exciting writing, stylish design, and strong performances combine for a play that showcases theatre-making at its very best.

Crime And Punishment
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 19 October