Adapting a novel for the stage is not an easy task. Adapting a seminal text such as “The Brothers Karamazov by Russian master Fyodor Dostoyevsky is even more formidable.
Dostoyevsky’s classic novel about the complex relationship between a father and his three sons in feudal Russia has been a long-term endeavor for Egyptian director Mohamed Abdallah and his young company Ihsas (Feeling).
Dostoyevsky’s last novel, completed in 1880, was intended to be the first part of an epic story titled “The Life of a Great Sinner but the novelist passed away before he could finish the other books in what would have been a spiritual/philosophical saga exploring man s relationship with God as well as concepts of free will and morality.
Sigmund Freud, who proclaimed “Karamazov as “The most magnificent novel ever written, found connections between it and what he named the Oedipus complex. The relationship between the brothers Karamazov and their father is a clear demonstration of the wish for the death of a father, and getting rid of the patriarchal authority figure to make room for the son’s growth, and the guilt that accompanies this process.
Freud analyzed how Dostoyevsky’s own neurosis contributed to the novel. He concluded that the writer’s own epilepsy was not a natural condition, but a physical manifestation of his own guilt regarding his father’s death (Dostoevsky started suffering from epilepsy at the age of 18 when his father died). Later research proved that Freud might have been wrong as Dostoevsky’s children inherited his epilepsy, proving that it was genetic.
This connection between life and art is what drew Mohamed Abdallah to the story. The founder of Ihsas spent six years working on adapting the novel to stage, and debuted his work this January. “Brothers Karamazov received a warm welcome, which encouraged him to present it again this week at Rawabet Theater in Downtown Cairo.
Tapping into Freud’s erroneous theory, Abdallah told Daily News Egypt that he finds a strong connection between the novel and contemporary Egyptian society, which suffers from the same ailments that inflicted 19th century Russia.
“Most people are disturbed and all homes have problems. All of families have some Karamazov at home, Abdallah said.
He believes that humans are born pure, but are tainted throughout their journey on earth. No wonder he found solace in Dostoyevsky’s work.
Since establishing his company in 2006, Abdallah has made a name for himself with pantomime and was chosen as the best mime artist at the Sawy Culture Wheel’s Theater Festival last year. He also ventured into monodrama and directed a couple of pantomime performances.
“Karamazov is Abdallah’s first large-cast production, and he tries to capture the message in Dostoyevsky’s gripping story. The adaptation focused on the philosophy adopted by the elder son Ivan: “Nothing should limit the behavior of a great human being. All what he does is right.
This idea was repeatedly spelled out throughout the performance, most prominently when the sick son Smerdyakov used it to justify murdering his father, and framing their third brother.
However, this tension between the righteous idea and criminal act could not hold up the performance. Good theater does not survive on enthusiasm alone; it requires good acting, solid directing and some technical finesse, which this play lacked.
The performance was so poorly-lit; the young actors were clueless about where to stand to capture their light, so much of the acting was performed in the dark. Most of the performance was set against elevator-style music, often louder than the voices of the actors, drowning their efforts to overcome the noises outside the theater. The music did not add to the performance, on the contrary, the monotonous melody only weighted it down.
The set was not much better than the music or the lighting. The black drapes and the dark costumes, coupled with poor lighting, served as a visual hindrance. And the cheap set pieces couldn’t even stay in place.
All of this could have been forgiven if the play had solid acting. But many of the performers, who lacked talent and training, resorted to an archaic model of overstatement or copying the acting styles they watch on television.
Ahmad Hassan was an exception. His portrayal of disturbed son Smerdyakov attempted to present a realistic and believable character. But the few moments of authenticity were clouded by his exaggerated interpretation of the epileptic fits, which snatched applause from the audience, yet failed to capture the essence of the tormented soul.
The major theatrical effect of the show, of Smerdyakov hanging himself in the final scene, was wasted on most audiences who couldn’t see the badly-lit actor behind the curtains, covered by a group of other performers.
The liveliest part of the performance was the curtain call. The pure joy from the young actors for completing the performance, coupled with the cheers of their friends and families in the audience created an energetic feel that the performance could have benefited from.
Abdallah’s next project is another Dostoyevsky adaptation; this time though, he will return to monodrama, utilizing the acting talent of Ahmad Hassan. A smaller, less ambitious project might be exactly what this director needs to chew until his permanent teeth grow strong.