The Parricide traverses the life of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and exposes the torment of a writer forced to choose between passion and love.
Director Karen Berger tells me that she grew up with Russian novels in the house. Her family is Russian/Lithuanian and Berger attributes Russian literature as a way her father felt connected to his own father, who died when he was a teenager. So Berger also read Dostoyevsky as a teenager and was swept up in his passionate, visceral world.
Berger believes The Parricide to be a fascinating perspective on Dostoyevsky's complicated character as a man – his genius, his epilepsy, his addiction to gambling, his relationships with some of Russia's most avant garde women; as well as the upheaval of the times he was living in during the build up to the Russian revolution and his ways of dealing with this.
"Diane (playwright Diane Stubbings) has essentialised the story of dramatic revolutionary events occurring in St Petersburg, the intense pressure on Dostoyevsky to complete one novel while the characters of another are forcefully impinging on his imagination, and his meeting the stenographer who was to become his second wife to create a very exciting play."
Berger's initial introduction to Stubbings came through another playwright, Tee O'Neill, whose work Berger had previously directed. Stubbings then asked Berger to direct a script development phase of the work funded through the R.E. Ross Trust in 2011. The rest, as they say, is history!
Berger explains that The Parricide exists at a fascinating intersection between the themes of choice, risk, fate, faith and hope. "In the play we learn about the true story of Dostoyevsky being sentenced for revolutionary activities when he was a young man. While he, and his co-conspirators, were waiting in front of the firing squad, a horseman from the Tsar rode up and announced their reprieve – they would instead be sent to hard labour camps in Siberia. To be spared death at that moment was such an incredible gift – a gift from fate that Dostoyevsky interprets as the opportunity to make future choices. He wrote, ‘I will be born again for the future’. In the harsh world of the Siberian prison camps, it was his conviction to hold on to his faith in the Russian Orthodox religion that kept him going. This faith would pit him against many revolutionary thinkers once he returned to St Petersburg."
"In Siberia, he suffered from severe epileptic fits, a particular type whose symptoms included a moment before the fit when he felt ‘full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.’ It seems to me that Dostoyevsky was perhaps searching for this incredibly highly charged, fateful moment when he gambled, and after losing he was often inspired to a burst of creativity. During the period of the play, these themes also play out in the way he is forced to choose between two very different women – the writer and feminist, Elena, or the young stenographer, Anna."
As a director, Berger is certainly excited by Stubbings' work and the themes explored therein. "I feel that the way Diane has cleverly woven these ideas into the play leaves myself the task of allowing the actors to play each scene fully with great intuitive awareness of what comes before and after for these themes to organically unfold."
All good works offer challenges and this one is no different for Berger. A director has an obligation to serve the work (and the playwright) and this is something Berger freely embraces.
"Similarly to Diane’s challenge in writing about such a great writer, in directing a play about him, I have needed to feel I was doing his work justice. I needed to make sure the whole team responsible for putting on this play – designers included – create a work that is passionate, intelligent, challenging and exciting. Diane’s script is a great starting point for achieving this. Next, I have a great acting team. Lyall Brooks, playing Dostoyevsky, brings a wonderful humanness to Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary contradictions (he’s probably helped by the fact that he hadn’t read any of his novels and so is not hampered by a sense of ‘getting it right’!). Nick Simpson-Deeks, Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, Olivia Monticciolo and Daniel Last have brought elements to their characters that have surprised and delighted me. Designers, Christine Urquhart and Douglas Montgomery, have brought full commitment to creating an evocative world for the characters to inhabit."
"Diane’s initial image was that the play would be presented in a black box theatre with the actors on stage all the time. My challenge and delight has been that we are performing in the intimate space of La Mama. This makes it tricky to keep all actors on stage, especially for intimate scenes. So we’ve had to find ways of using entrance and exits well. But I love the strong character of the La Mama space, and for me it has come to be exactly how Dostoyevsky’s study looked, with his land lady upstairs, banging her broom any time she wants to be heard."
Berger is a graduate of both the Victorian College of the Arts and Victoria University. She has amassed profound credibility as a director and/or music director for productions for somewhere in the vicinity of 16 years so her expectations from actors makes a great list and one that all actors should take particular not of:
– A very clear shared understanding of the text, including the ‘back story’.
– Research. This play offers many research trails to follow!
– In The Parricide most of the actors play more than one character. Making very clear decisions about character and being able to move between characters has been important.
– The ability to play, improvise and make offers.
– The ability to drop into deep emotional states and to transform quickly.
Berger believes The Parricide to be a great new Australian play, with a great cast, about a fascinating and contradictory character who lived during extraordinary times, in a wonderfully evocative venue transformed by a talented design team!
The Parricide is a play about a man who died over 100 years ago – it was an interesting occurrence in 2011 that lead Berger and the team to understand that time really has no barriers and that connections can be forged, and found, throughout history.
"In October 2011, we were working on a script development of The Parricide. One morning, one of the actresses rang me, very flustered. There was a traffic jam on the freeway, she was running very late, but had I heard the news? There was a serious riot happening in Melbourne CBD! Her excitement was contagious and those of us already at rehearsal tuned in to listen to the battle between the police and Occupy Melbourne protestors. The energy and passion of that violence fed directly into our exploration of revolution in Dostoyevsky’s Russia, making it more real, less ‘historical’. We clearly saw that intense, sometimes violent, response to dissatisfaction with society happens now, and will continue to happen. And though the Occupy movement is no longer active in Australia, the daily news from around the world forces us to think about the rights and wrongs of revolutionary activity."
"The other aspect of The Parricide story that makes it so relevant to today (and every day) is the human relationships underlying societal forces. Playwright, Diane Stubbings, cleverly interweaves the stories of The Brothers Karamazov and The Gambler with Dostoyevsky’s relationships at the time of him meeting and marrying his second wife, Anna. Through this, she investigates the personal reasons for getting (or not getting) involved in social activism."
Dostoyevsky was a passionate and fascinating man: the initial moments of his ongoing epilepsy gave him instances of almost unbearable bliss; his addiction to gambling, where catastrophic losses meant he felt pure and inspired to write; his liaisons with some of Russia’s most avant guard intellectual women. These subjects alone would make this play intriguing, but we also have the pleasure of investigating the genesis of some of his works of literary genius. Rich and dramatic territory indeed!
May 7 – May 25
Rehearsal Photos: Christine Urquhart