Joseph Alford, Denis Quilligan, Julie Bower, Dominic Burdess, Carolina Valdes, Nick Lee, Lucien Lindsay MacDougall
Hell above, heaven below. That’s how it seems in this topsy-turvy world where fathers sleep around, brothers feud, and nothing and no-one – including God – makes any sense.
Delirium is an update by Enda Walsh (whose Walworth Farce was recently staged by the National) and Theatre O of Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
It concerns the trials and tribulations of three brothers who have differing attitudes towards God, and conflicting tastes in women.
Twenty-three year old Alyosha (played by the director, Joseph Alford) emerges from his monastery with his Elder’s voice ringing in his head.
It tells him to be wary of his older brother, Mitya, ‘who will drag a violent future onto all your heads’, but also to keep faith and always to forgive. Reunited with his father and two brothers, conflict ensues when the younger brother Ivan (Dominic Burgess) is rejected by Katerina (Carolina Valdes) because she loves Mitya (Nick Lee).
The play explores the circumstances, and the attitudes and desires of each family member, that underlie the state of affairs we see. Ivan, the intellectual, cannot believe in God and puts him on trial, arguing that Jesus, when challenged to turn stones into bread, rejected the chance to feed His people. He suggests that keeping people wanting, rather than addressing their needs, is the way to keep them searching and believing. Alyosha counters that Ivan’s lack of faith derives from taking on board only those elements of the Christian message to do with self-fulfilment to start with.
But it is only when these attitudes collide with those of the eldest brother, Mitya, for whom ‘the world lives in Technicolor’, that things come to a head. Mitya initially falls for Katerina, but his mind can only see her as a goddess to be worshipped and not as a real human being. She, however, is so infatuated with him that she rejects everything else in life including Ivan. Mitya, in turn, desires the loose Grushenka (Julie Bower), who has the flesh and blood he craves, even though he knows she is sleeping with his father, Fyodor (Denis Quilligan).
The strength of the production can be attributed to several things. First, the fact that the play was co-written by the group performing it has enabled the intentions laid down in the script to be brought out to the letter in the performance. The dialogue is also so skilfully written that the play’s messages seem universal, without entirely losing its sense of being ‘Russian’. Modern music is frequently played and there are references to recent events such as high profile child abuse cases (again used to disprove God’s existence). At the same time, other music is intrinsically Russian, whilst Ivan’s rant on how he could facilitate the establishment of shrines and churches to a whisky bottle immediately evoke thoughts of the Russian Orthodox Church (even though these things are not exclusive to that denomination).
The staging is also striking and on several occasions the production explodes into a tightly choreographed fight scene, one so physical that it seems as if the stunts might actually hurt the actors. The servant, Smerdyakov (played by Lucien Lindsay MacDougall), uses puppets to tell of Fyodor’s past shenanigans with wives and lovers; whilst the second act becomes (almost) one long cabaret scene in Fyodor’s club, with the brothers appearing in Superman and gorilla costumes that make them seem more pathetic than amusing. Amongst all this there are some deeply moving moments. When Mitya points a gun at Fyodor’s head only to see him burst into a rendition of Fools Rush In, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective instantly springs to mind.
One weakness, however, is that certain scenes feel too melodramatic, even in a play that does not demand ultra-realism from start to finish, and where comedy often helps to heighten the pathos. The chief offending scene is where Katerina goes into a long rant, saying that even if Mitya “betrays me, hates me, I will follow him always. I will be the ground he walks on, I will be his toilet.” Valdes tries valiantly to make such lines work, but the fault lies in the original script.
Overall, the arguments presented in the play for God not existing appear strong, but the sub-text is surely that a failure to believe is to end up like the people here. To an extent, it is the hands that the characters have been dealt that have made (some of) them so cynical, but it is also their atheism that has caused their lives to feel so bleak.
It is at the moment where both the audience and the characters alike suddenly grasp this point that the play then ends by offering a few, albeit tentative, rays of hope. Indeed, Alyosha’s closing words, in which he urges everyone ‘to begin’, add an extra dimension to what is already a highly complex affair, and provide just one more reason for going to see this play.