The Grand Inquisitor @ New York Theatre Workshop, New York

cast list
Bruce Myers
Jake M. Smith

directed by
Peter Brook
More didactic than dialectic, it’s a shame that renowned director Peter Brook’s latest creation, The Grand Inquisitor, fails to live up to expectations.

Its set comprised of a central elevated square in front of bare brick walls and a pair of ordinary chairs, the play’s two actors are the center of attention in this 80-minute adaptation of the famed “grand inquisitor” section of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, an epic-sized novel of which this dramatic segment represents just a part. The problem here (and it’s a big one) is the complete lack of dramatic tension throughout.

In the source novel, the story of the grand inquisitor is told as a parable by one character to another as a means of highlighting the restrictive nature of individual freedoms. In the story, Christ returns to Inquisition-era Seville, performing miracles amidst the poor townspeople only to be arrested and accused of inspiring humanity to strive for greater things than mere blind faith.

Here, director Brook (whose work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and must-read theatre manifesto The Empty Space have been hailed worldwide) takes a presentational approach to the material. Bruce Myers’s narrator, after setting the scene, soon dons the sobering robes of the inquisitor and ceremoniously takes on a new – and far less objective – role in the proceedings. Throughout, he walks in circles around the central platform, occasionally raising his voice to a thunderous bellow, his hollow eyes harboring a depth more profound than anything contained within the text itself.

The problems here lie mainly in the adaptation, by Marie-Helene Estienne; without any dramatic arc to speak of as regards the central character of the inquisitor, the end result is decidedly short on spark. Sure, the topics on hand are thought-provoking, but without a clear conflict what we’re given is instead unyieldingly static. In fact the very last line of the play (it’s not really giving much away) is, “…He stays with his idea,” a telling sign of the play’s misguided stalwartness. It’s sturdy, it’s self-important, but it’s ultimately all talk.

As the inquisitor presents the case against Christ, the holy son listens calmly from a corner of the interrogation cell. Never once does the character of Christ speak; it’s in his silent, redemptive presence that we’re meant to find meaning in this piece, but without an exchange between the two – or at least something within the inquisitor’s argument to set off some sort of change – there’s no chance for either character to elicit any tangible sentiment.

The work of drama in its most diluted essence is to present an audience with a story, however loose. In The Grand Inquisitor what we get is instead a barrage of words, some meaningful, none of them adding to anything more cohesive than a half-formed argument in great need of some character development.

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