Of cramped minds and murdering of self; Servati’s ambitious staging of ‘Crime and Punishment’ in Tehran

TEHRAN, Jul. 16 (MNA) – Iranian director Reza Servati took a more ambitious step in his theater career by staging Fyodor Dostoevsky’s complex and highly-praised novel ‘Crime and Punishment’. The result was jaw-dropping stage design and convincing performance.

‘Crimes and Punishment’ is Reza Servati’s ambitious stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s well-read and highly-praised novel ‘Crime and Punishment’ (1866), which has been on stage at Tehran’s Vahdat Hall since June 11 and will wrap up a month-long successful run on Friday, July 19.

The 36-year-old Servati is just as ambitious as his latest stage production. He appears as the author, the scenic designer and of course the director of a 135-mintue long stage-rendition of such an intimidating novel that few stage directors would dare to approach. The production also enjoys a solid cast of familiar names in the Iranian cinema, such as Babak Hamidian, Pantea Bahram, Mehdi Soltani and Tannaz Tabatabei, which renders itself to a flawless performance no doubt, but inevitably ends up with a considerable hike in the ticket price, which might have failed to convince many casual theater-goers to part ways with their money just to watch a play.

At any rate, the 740-seat opera house in downtown Tehran was never found wanting of enough spectators during the whole showtime, with the best seats in the house selling out in the first few hours after the tickets went on sale. Whether the enthusiasm was because of Servati’s already well-established name behind the production (‘The List’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Wonders of Creation’ and ‘Woyzeck’ are some of his most successful works), or the impressive cast, good marketing, the favorable audience feedback, the actual adaptation of a celebrated novel, or all of these reasons, ‘Crimes and Punishment’ (with a presumably deliberate plural form of the word ‘crime’)  was entitled to its success, more or less, with its jaw-dropping stage design, a nearly faithful rendition of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, and moving, flawless acting, even if one would complain about the length of the performance or repetitive moves and long-winded monologues that sometimes dragged on and laid further emphasis on the slow passage of time.

The play’s strongest feature, I would argue, was the stage design. A giant three-level structure resembling a building, with a similarly giant tree complete with roots and branches striking through it. Servati, as the scenographer, had made a skillful use of all that Vahdat Hall had to offer, even with the grand drape that one rarely sees dropping to signal the end of the performance.

Actors moved between the levels with ease by climbing the spiraling staircases on either side of the structure, and the lighting was on point and stage props on the middle level, where most of the action took place, were moved around and changed immaculately to signify a change of scenery. The addition of the tree was a clever idea, as it gave the whole solid performance a symbolic layer as well. Perhaps, it is almost too easy to read the tree with its distinct three levels as a Freudian structural model of the psyche, with the roots standing for Id (it’s a level where the bar is situated, where Raskolnikov first meets Marmeladov and is told about the drunkard’s pitiful life, his wife Katerina, and his teenage daughter, Sonya), the trunk signifying Ego (this is where Raskolnikov commits murder, is interrogated by the police, and meets Sonya), and the branches indicating Raskolnikov’s Superego (this is Raskolnikov’s room, where we are witness to his delirium and the slow deterioration of his mind.)

Close on the heels of the impressive stage design is of course Babak Hamidian’s arresting and convincing portrait of Raskolnikov’s dual personality – one of a murderer who later succumbs to his guilty conscience, and one of a charitable person that gives his money to Sonya’s family. With his receding hairline, scruffy chin, and delirious eyes he reminds me too much of Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki in the Vikings drama series. But perhaps that is merely a coincidence. This was Hamidian’s third appearance in Servati’s stage productions, with the previous two being ‘Woyzeck’ and ‘Macbeth’, in both of which he played the leading role. He’s perhaps Servati’s safe bet when it comes to delirious characters with bouts of nervous breakdown and speeches slurred with insanity and hysteria. But Raskolnikov was not the only character in Servati’s ‘Crimes and Punishment’ inflicted with dementia. Behnaz Jafari was also convincing in her portrayal of Katerina’s gradual mental breakdown, especially during the scene leading to her ultimate demise, wherein wrecked by destitute after being evicted from her home, she goes completely mad on the streets, forcing her petrified children to dance and perform for money.

The play itself follows the major events of the novel closely, even quoting directly from the book in many instances. Raskolnikov murders the elderly pawn-broker with an axe, and is forced to kill her half-sister, Lizaveta, when she stumbles upon the scene of murder. In his panic, he fails to grab all the money and leaves a witness behind. His relationships with all other major characters are also the same. His motive for the murder, and his gradual spiral into a feverish, delirious state are just as one already knows from the novel. There are some small changes, though. Marmeladov, for instance, is mobbed and stabbed in the chest and the money he got from Sonya is stolen, instead of being struck by a carriage; or the Razumikhin character, who takes care of the delirious Raskolnikov is completely absent, perhaps to further highlight the utter loneliness and suffering of the lead character. The play also does away with the epilogue, deciding instead to make the final scene a powerful breakdown of Raskolnikov as he kneels on the cobbled street and confesses to the murder as the personification of his guilty conscience takes the axe to the trunk of the tree in a highly symbolic gesture.

‘Crimes and Punishment’ the play is immersed in acute human suffering, stemmed from destitute, questions of faith, and minds serving as prisons, personal hells, a torture chamber. Every character suffers either in their own ways, or in relation to the lead character. Even the spectator suffers, at the profound sense of erasure wherein the female characters, many as they are, feel nothing like human beings, but mere stage props, in the servitude of the male characters who drive the narrative forward in their pursuit of forgiveness and the evasive sense of clarity.

The music was captivating, especially during the final scene, but by no means dominating, which was a pity. Unlike his ‘List’, there was no trace of grotesque dancing and music to give a layer of absurd to the glaring sense of pain and loss. The only dance in ‘Crimes and Punishment’ was Katerina’s feverish one on the street at the peak of her mental breakdown, and it was painful to watch in its realistic overtones. There was no black comedy or grotesque element to the play this time; only bare, blatant human suffering, and ghosts that walked on the stage, seen by those ‘running a fever’ and with a ‘guilty conscience’.  

“And do you know, Sonya, that low ceilings and tiny rooms cramp the soul and the mind?,” said Servati’s Raskolnikov, quoting a passage from chapter 4 of the novel, as he was lying on a bench during his confession to Sonya. “I murdered myself.”

News Code 147701

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