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Why? and Other Existential Questions

Brothers Karamazov Director Victor Kalka discusses rehearsal process, the choice of source material, and Dostoyevksy's urealised dream of writing plays.


There are two questions that lie just below the surface of this show. There is the one that every director should ask of their work: Why this play, and why now? Then there is the less obvious one, why this version, written in 1981 by British playwright Richard Crane?

I’ll tackle the second question first, because it does seem an odd choice, especially for a company called Arrive. Devise. Repeat., with our focus being on devised work. Perhaps I’m playing semantics and pushing the envelope a bit far, but isn’t all theatre ‘devised’ work in some way? A group of people come together, and create a story, one element of that work happens to be a text – but give that same text to three different groups and they would create three different performances. I’m interested in evolving my process as a director into one based predominantly on collaborative work with an ensemble – I have no interest in a “stand here, say this” approach to building a work. The cast of Brothers Karamazov and I work together to tell this story, together we devise the physical score, and then work in Mr Crane’s excellent words.

The cast of Brothers Karamazov in rehearsal.

The cast of Brothers Karamazov in rehearsal.

The approach I am taking with the cast is based in Viewpoints and the work of Anne Bogart. We spend the first part of the rehearsal working through a number of Viewpoints exercises, the aim being to stop the cast thinking with their heads, and to get them thinking kinesthetically. We work with shapes and gestures influenced by the text and use the Viewpoints exercises as improvisations to generate new material. We then take this material and sense of play into the scene work. Some days I will set a composition task, giving a list of ingredients to the actors and leaving the room while they decide how to make it work. I never give them enough time, so there’s no room for talking about it, they just have to get up and do it. It’s a quick and dirty way of working, but within fifteen minutes we have a framework for the scene. Then we start to refine – a lot ends up cut, changed, and the end result is often miles from where they started, we very much work in the spirit of Anne’s mantra “hold on tightly, let go lightly.”

As for the first question, “why Brothers Karamazov?” Why this 700+ page Russian novel written in 1881? This book is rich source material, the voices of Dostoyevsky’s characters are vibrant and distinct and just begging to be said aloud by actors. He is also a very theatrical writer – I believe at heart a closet dramatist. He dabbled briefly in writing for the stage, a comedy, but the work was never produced. He rewrote this script into the novel The Village of Stepanchikovo, but I don’t think he ever stopped thinking theatrically. The novel Brothers Karamazov is told through a series of ‘scenes’, often in self contained locations: the cell of Elder Zosima, the houses of Karamazov and Katerina Ivanovna, a Spanish dungeon and a provincial courtroom.  Characters enter, exit, conceal themselves, and passionately fight for the things they want – just like in any good script.

The story, though at its core straight forward, is also huge and mythic: a father murdered and the search for meaning in a potentially godless world. There are strands of Greek tragedy: Oedipus, the Oresteia, and Shakespeare: King Lear and Hamlet. It’s also an absurd comedy, there are moments of almost commedia like slapstick, and moments of bleak Beckettian absurdism. “[M]an contains it all. Can’t understand why his head is ashamed and his body roars. […] the fight goes on: God and the Devil raging like bulls,” (Dmitry, Act 1). Just like the characters, these competing styles push and pull against one another, but out of this chaos comes the cohesive whole of the play, itself a metaphor for the human condition: messy and contradictory.

The central question posed in the play(/book) is “if there is no god, is everything permitted?” What a question to be asking now. We live in this world where God is used as a justification for all sorts of acts of violence, and yet statistically there is a shift away from religion. In this play the characters search for a justification for the evils in the world, they question the nature of good and evil, and interrogate the very purpose of their existence. It’s big stuff. And in the midst of all this they desperately cling to love, they want to love and be loved. “As we wrestle with the consequences of our own reckless materialism and demented search for secular idols, I can't think of a more urgent topic for our theatre to address.” (Billington, 2008)

References

Billington, M. (2008) “Dramatists should take a leaf out of Dostoyevsky’s book” in The Guarian https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2008/nov/07/dostoevsky-delirium-theatre-adaptations

Crane, R. (2011) Russian Plays. Oberon Books: London.


Brothers Karamazov is playing at PACT in Erskineville from the 6th - 16th December, 2017.
Click here to buy tickets.

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