Dostoevsky’s Demons: a new transposition

Theatre, film and the novel are somewhat quarrelsome housemates constantly negotiating with each other for space and control. I sometimes think that a great film can be made only from a mediocre novel; a great novel has too much material, and does its job too completely, for film to operate freely. I’ve never read the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche (whose acute accent transcends the capacities of my keyboard) that served as source for Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim”, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a fairly slender work. Theatre and film is a different matter: the Burton/Taylor “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf ?” carries such authority that it is hard to imagine the play without it. Theatre and the novel raise different questions again.

I am a trustee of a small theatre company, Splitmoon, which is currently staging a transposition of Dostoevsky’s Demons, written and directed by our artistic director, and my friend, Peter Stuerm, using the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. A couple of years ago, I sank two whole weeks in reading this extraordinary novel in Russian. Dostoevsky’s novel is distinguished among the great nineteenth-century novels by its exceptionally broad range of viewpoint – there are about ten characters who each serve as a pivot around which events move: by the extreme seriousness with which ideas, sometimes but not always of intellectual merit, are taken by the characters: and by the feral-diabolic quality of the explosions in its great scenes. To write this novel in English one would need a committee of Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot and Christina Rossetti (now that might be an idea for a play…). That such a work is unstageable might seem axiomatic; Peter’s endeavour is not so much, I think, to refute this axiom as to use the work to explode, locally, our sense of what theatre can be. It is therefore appropriate that the work is presented not in a theatre but in the body and guts of St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch and its attached hall, an Enlightenment building transformed at night into Foscolo-Dickensian liminality.

Dostoevsky’s time is alternately undulant and explosive. His novels are built on the same grand, slow scale as Tolstoy’s, but a slow buildup is often followed by scenes of extreme violence and speed. Peter’s approach has been to strip away much of the buildup, thrusting the audience directly into the presence of the ferocity inherent in the novel, while framing the tempest by the device of a trial of the character Nikolai Stavrogin (ostensibly, I suppose, the ‘main’ character, though the novel works against as much as with such a designation). What we get is a vast nineteenth century realist narrative subjected to a compressed modernist-expressionist presentation. Everything is motivated within the novel; everything is locally intelligible and physically realised; but the links between events may stretch the comprehension of those who have not read the novel. This form of difficulty shares much with the operations of modernist poetry; arguably, in a more latent way, with all poetry. The idea that one ‘understands’ a poem is always partly an illusion, since there is no final answer in a good poem why one thing, however clear in itself, should follow another. How an audience at St Leonard’s should cope with this challenge – how far the attempt to understand is to be persisted with or renounced – becomes a question posed, to each viewer, by the work itself (as it is also posed by Bishop Tikhon’s engaged scrutiny of Stavrogin’s confession).

A large cast and an episodic narrative challenge the actors to carve out a significance very quickly without the usual prop of narrative continuity. Some of the actors at St Leonard’s have been working on this material with Peter for several years, and I have been impressed this week by how deeply they have absorbed it. I don’t feel it’s appropriate as a trustee to single anyone out; simply to say that in every case the actors (and indeed the production team led by Splitmoon’s manager Caroline Staunton and generously assisted by St Leonard’s) have laid themselves open to the demands of the work; demands that seem to involve not simply technical mastery (though the technical level, albeit occasionally challenged by the resonant acoustic, is very high) but the novel’s great theme of possession. As a result, each scene seems not so much the presentation of characters as the embodied exposure of souls.

Dostoevsky’s novel represents revolutionary politics as a wave of collective possession or madness. This madness provides the events of the novel; it is lit, not by sunlight, but by the flames of the characters’ delusion. The madness comes very close to engulfing the state; in the novel the revolutionary activist Piotr Verkhovensky wins the confidence of the provincial governor’s wife, and one of the great scenes is a bizarre fete organised under her auspices. It is a shock, at the very end, to hear the findings of a routine and impersonal police report: there turns out to be a dull and ostensibly sane set of authorities who have been waiting in the wings all along.

The metaphor of possession is, of course, religious and specifically Christian. But it seems more broadly useful than that. One need not be a theist to think (as Buddhism tends to) that we would treat other and ourselves both more kindly and more effectively if we thought of much of what we call evil not as a matter of the depravity of the will but as the possession of the person by bad ideas. And the collectivity of mental dysfunction can be witnessed every time a cricket or football team publicly falls apart.

But to speak this way begs the question of valuation. Dostoevsky is certainly, at the time of writing Devils, opposed to the revolutionary politics he formerly supported, and his portrayal intimates some of the worst forms that the revolutionary tradition would later take. One can take the work as a defence of a conservative or reactionary Slavophile politics. But this is too easy. The underlying bad faith of Shatov’s Slavophilia (formerly formulated and espoused by Stavrogin himself), based on a Duginite blend of cultural relativism and faithless voluntarist theism, is exposed by Stavrogin’s interrogation. An exchange between Stavrogin and Kirillov refers to a doctrine held within the orthodox Christian tradition and unforgettably presented by the figure of Christ in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: everyone, or everything, should be seen as good. Such an idea suggests an apophatic approach to religious practice, and the name of the ostensibly saintly Bishop Tikhon, while not Dostoevsky’s own coinage and probably a transliteration from Greek, embeds the Russian word for silence. Tikhon is not speaking in bad faith when he suggests he may be a greater sinner than Stavrogin and while this production gives Tikhon some of the trappings of a judge what he issues is counsel, not sentence. (Rowan Williams’ book explores some of the links with the orthodox tradition and the theologian Sergei Bulgakov more fully; I cannot now remember whether I came across some of these ideas there first).

There is, however, something less Christian embodied by this whole enterprise, something shared by a work like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The characters may be going to hell, but they have, or give us, a whale of a time on the way. Dostoevsky would have found Nietzsche problematic, but ‘Demons’ may be the most Dionysiac nineteenth-century novel. If the characters ultimately inspire not only horror but also affection and even forgiveness, this is because their tragic aspirations collapse into satyr in the Greek sense (this production carries the oxymoronic subtitle ‘a tragic satire’) or outright comedy. Tikhon tells Stavrogin that his confession’s reception will undo him, not by pity, but by laughter. At one point in the dark stairwell at St Leonard’s, a bunch of conspirators gather round a barrel. One bangs their fist. The reverberation makes the whole group jump like kittens. This is slapstick; it is diabolically funny; but Peter tells me I was the only person who laughed.

The production is on for the current two weeks. Details at: