Michael Portillo - Deadly descent

Theatre - In the semi-darkness, a novel comes to life in fragments, writes Michael Portillo

Und

''If you get a panic attack, please contact one of the ushers, who have white armbands," I was advised genially as I made my way down into the gloom of a former abattoir in London's Clerkenwell area. The "theatre" had equipped me with a single crib sheet that listed the basic psychological traits of the characters from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. This was to serve like a trainspotter's guide to the personalities that I would encounter in the gloaming.

The abattoir is vast and perfect for the purposes of experimental theatre. On the main floor there were several large open spaces, a few rooms that might once have been offices and several alcoves that could readily be curtained off. The actions inspired by Crime and Punishment might occur anywhere and at any time. It took a while for me to cotton on. The semi-dark was disconcerting and it was hard to pinpoint the origin of sounds - a woman screaming, for example. It turned out that if you stood still, action would soon envelop you. Alternatively, if you spotted a character on the move and followed, you would probably soon encounter drama by staying in his or her company.

The events that we encountered were not in sequence. It was left to the audience, as it trailed about, to put the episodes that they witnessed into chronological order.

In the first scene I came across, the drunkard Marmeladov (played by Johannes Flaschberger) arrives late on his first day in a new job, is upbraided and sent packing by the boss. A jeering crowd watches as he descends into despair (speaking German) and strips down to his underwear. Later they carry him out, presumably dead.

On a wall a film was being projected. It showed Raskolnikov (Iain Pearson) tricking his way into the room of Alyona Ivanovna, the elderly moneylender (You-ri Yamanaka). Through the filth on the glass of the door we could just see him raining blows upon her head with an axe. I recognised the room as one within the abattoir that I had entered a few moments before. When I returned there I noticed for the first time that the furniture was thrown about, and a handprint in blood was visible next to the door jamb.

Later I stumbled across Raskolnikov in person. He was psyching himself to do the murder. Some time after that, as I lingered near the door to that room, I saw him enter and enact the murder precisely as I had seen it projected on the screen. I stood among a crowd of spectators who were lurking outside, some attempting to peer through the dirt on the window. We stood gawping at the savage events occurring around us. We had quickly accepted our role as voyeurs.

As I passed along a corridor, an usher swept a curtain aside and I found myself in a bar where a waitress who spoke only French offered me red wine. Moments later Svidrigailov (Gergo Danka) swept in and addressed us amiably (in Hungarian). He had Sonia (Scarlett Perdereau) with him, the daughter of Marmeladov. He was buying her sexual favours, and when the two disappeared through a set of glass panelled doors, to our shame we peeped in to see how they were progressing. Later I found myself seized upon and made to dance by Katerina Ivanovna (Julia Munrow), Sonia's demented stepmother. She spoke in Russian. She was still dreaming of a graduation ball that she had attended in her youth. She had waltzed with a colonel and won a prize.

Apparently it made little difference that we could not understand much of the dialogue. Fortunately, the interrogations to which Raskolnikov was subjected by the cunning detective Porfiry (Miltos Yerolemou) were conducted in English. There were two, which I came across in reverse chronological order. That did not seem to matter either.

After a couple of hours had passed swiftly, I saw for a second time the scene with Marmeladov arriving at work. The loop had gone round and I could depart. It was only then that I discovered the abattoir's lower storey. There I found the "homes" of all our characters. In his lair Porfiry was reading Engels and making notes on psychoanalysis. In Katerina Ivanovna's chamber I found the yellowing invitation to the famous graduation ball.

The production is by the dreamthinkspeak theatre company under its artistic director Tristan Sharps. It is highly imaginative and works well. With actors spread over a wide area and on two levels, and with sound effects and video linked in too, Underground is a miracle of planning and direction.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed rushing around the damp basement in search of further strands in the story. It was fun to identify the characters from the crib sheet. Like Porfiry we hunted for clues, trying to make the fragments that we witnessed fit together. In the end we had not Crime and Punishment as such but rather its fragrance, as though we had been reading the book before going to sleep and were now dreaming about it confusedly.

It was a surprisingly pleasant sensation, despite the snippets of nightmare to which we had been privy.

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