Chris Hannan was twenty-one when he first read Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky's bleak tale of one man's descent into murder and madness before having a spiritual reawakening. Then, Hannan was an undoubtedly serious young man lurking around the Penguin Classics section in bookshops as he devoured the entire Dostoyevsky canon alongside other Russian masters. More than three decades on, Hannan has adapted Crime and Punishment for the stage in a major new production which opens at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week.
“It's a strange timer when you're twenty-one,” Hannan says of his mind-set when he first read Crime and Punishment. “You've got all that paranoia. Sometimes you have this exalted view of things, and you have all this enjoyment of the seamier side of things, so that was perfect for Crime and Punishment.
“I've probably read the book about seven times since the first time I read it, and it's something I utterly love. It's hard to explain the effect it had on me that first time, but it had a very strange effect, and I suppose it made me feel at home. I thought at the time that I'd never seen anyone write about what felt like my family.”
Perhaps Hannan is identifying with Raskolnikov, the penniless St Petersburg ex student whose mental and moral anguish forms the book's heart as he attempts to justify killing an unscrupulous pawnbroker for some higher purpose as well as his own survival. If so, he may also be thinking of Marmaledov, the father of Raskolnikov's love interest, Sonya.
“He was the best drunk character I'd ever read,” Hannan says.
One of the great things about Crime and Punishment, which was originally serialised over twelve parts in monthly journal The Russian Messenger throughout 1866, is that, while it deals with big existential ideas, it is a hugely accessible piece of genre fiction.
“That's what's so fantastic about it,” says Hannan. “It's a crime thriller and a whodunnit meets Karl Marx and Jesus Christ. That's what makes it possible to adapt it. T lends itself to having a beginning, a middle and an end, and that's what makes it properly do-able.”
Even so, putting a five hundred page novel onto a stage with every nuance intact was never going to be easy.
“It feels like in the book Raskolnikov is in dialogue with both himself and the whole of society,” Hannan points out. “He's always anticipating what the response might be to what he's saying even as he's saying it. So you need to find some way of translating that to the stage. That's the difficulty, and that's the challenge of the thing, but you've already got this different context with the audience who in a way are society, so you can enter a dialogue with them.
“There's also something about the intensity of the characters that makes it possible to adapt. They're all in perpetual crisis, and what's good theatrically is that they're in crisis with who they are. They're constantly trying to make themselves up. I think as well that Dostoyevsky was a very theatrical writer. He loved theatre, and he was a big fan of Schiller, and he wrote in scenes. The only other writer I can think of who is as theatrical is Jane Austen.”
This co-production of Crime and Punishment not only pools the resources of the Citizens, Liverpool Playhouse and the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. It also reunites the creative team who worked on Hannan's last major work to be seen in Scotland, The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain. This includes director and artistic director of the Citz, Dominic Hill, as well as designer Colin Richmond.
“I think it was me who first suggested doing it to Dominic,” says Hannan, “and it's quite hard to explain why I thought it might be a good idea to do it, other than the fact that I've loved it so long.”
Clydebank-born Hannan's career as a writer began in 1982 with Screw The Bobbin, an agit-prop play for 7:84. Hannan's interest in Russian literature came through in his 1984 piece for the Traverse, Klimkov: Life of A Tsarist Agent, and in a 1987 version of Gogol's play, Gamblers. Other plays for the Traverse have included Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and Shining Souls, while Hannan's own novel, Missy, was published in 2008 inbetween penning plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.
Crime and Punishment, however, should prove epic in every way. Coming so long after the twenty-one year old Hannan first delved into Dostoyevsky's dark pages, one wonders how the mature Hannan might make the story relevant for the serious young men and women of twenty-first century Scotland and Liverpool.
“You could put various spins on the story,” Hannan suggests. “In some ways Raskolnikov is like a terrorist, in that he's taking a life for an ideological purpose, which is to see if he can do it, but I wouldn't want to push that idea to far. I think the story's real contemporary relevance us about what is the value of life. That's what it's exploring. It also explores someone who separates himself from the rest of society, and how on earth he's going to rejoin that society. So it's about our relationship with society.
It's a thrilling story, but it's an emotionally thrilling story as well. It's not an abstract novel. Dostoyevsky's been there, done that. He didn't murder someone, but he was part of a revolutionary group that plotted murder. Then he goes to Siberia for his crime, and mixes with murderers, and I think he really did pour all that into Crime and Punishment.
People imagine Dostoyevsky to be all doom and gloom, and pointless doom and gloom, with him having gone through some fairly grim experiences, but the moment of enlightenment at the end of Crime and Punishment, that's part of Dostoyevsky's journey as well, moving from darkness into light. He emerges,” Hannan pauses a moment, and then starts laughing. “I'm trying to avoid the phrase 'with a positive outlook',” he says, sounding like his twenty-one year old self isn't that far away after all.
Crime and Punishment, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 5th-28th; Liverpool Playhouse, October 1st-19th; Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, October 22nd-November 9th.
Chris Hannan – A Life in Words
1984 – Klimkov: Life of A Tsarist Agent. Hannan's first full-length play for the Traverse began his interest in all things Russian
1985 – Elizabeth Gordon Quinn. Set during a rent strike in 1915 Glasgow, Hannan's eponymous heroine refused to believe she was poor.
1990 The Baby. Written for The Tron Theatre, The Baby was a revenge tragedy set in 78 BC Rome.
The Evil Do-ers premiered at The Bush, and is a comedy about a demented Glasgow family careering around the city pursued by a debt-collector and their alcoholic mother.
1996 – Shining Souls – A woman's wedding day finds her battling with the dead on the streets of Glasgow in a comedy which premiered at the Traverse.
2010 – The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain – Taking the characters made immortal by Alexandre Dumas, Hannan created a brand new yarn in a rip-roaring comedy at the Traverse.
2011 – The God of Soho – A search for the divine in Essex and a look at celebrity culture opened at Shakespeare's Globe.
The Herald, August 27th 2013