As part of WNO’s Russian Revolution season, From the House of the Dead is a revival of David Poutney’s original production from some 30 years ago. Based on the writings of Dostoyevsky, it originally came into being as an opera through the work of Leos Janacek. It retains much of the observational style of Dostoyevsky’s work, writing about his experiences in a Siberian prison in quite a matter-of-fact way. As a result, Janacek’s opera does not have a strong narrative thread. There are no protagonists as such. Instead, the focus is supposedly upon the whole cast, some of whom relate their stories and experiences before their confinement in the prison camp they now find themselves in.
The set design has been meticulously constructed, with an immersive opening sequence transporting us, the audience, into the depths of their squalid, godforsaken conditions. As the house lights go down, we are plunged into darkness. Slowly, light from backstage filters in, unveiling a scene of destitution that resembles the trenches of war. Surrounded by crumbling walls, barbed wire fences, and makeshift structures are a sea of fallen men. Yet as the light breathes life into the stage, they suddenly come to life. They are men shackled and chained; wretched, rabid and ruined creatures. Slowly, they gather themselves, forming a line across the stage in a very Dickensian opening sequence: workhouse boys trudging, one by one, to receive a bowl of food from the staunch and unemotional guards.
There is a brutality to this scene that is reflected throughout this production. Sometimes, it is too uncomfortable. Following these opening minutes, a new prisoner, Goryanchikov (Ben McAteer), is thrown into the scene. He is first stripped, and then beaten. This latter event takes place off stage, but the sound is enough to convey a disturbing violence that made me flinch in my seat. Later on, a young boy by the name of Alyeya (Paula Greenwood) has a pot of boiling water thrust into his face. It made me recoil immediately, and the visible presence of steam afterwards was a bit too authentic in my view. On the other hand, this verisimilitude helps to convey the unseemly and inhumane conditions of Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical work.
Both the lighting and the music are used to great effect. I would like to point out one particular sequence which takes the form of a montage, in which different parts of the stage are lit to reveal the daily life of the prisoners. It is very cinematic in style, made more impressive by the monotone beats of a drum and the low sounds of the trombone. It is these aesthetic sequences that I found most compelling in this production. If composed entirely of these scenes, From the House of the Dead would feel like an observational documentary. Not a bad feat for a staged performance.
Despite these sequences however, and the absorbing, atmospheric set design, there is something about this production that doesn’t sit quite right with me. I think the problem lies with its violence. Despite these men being imprisoned for different things, even such trivial matters like stealing a cabbage, the focus is placed on those who have committed grave offences such as murder. What’s more, although the large absence of women is understandable due to Dostoyevsky’s experience of an all-male camp, when they do appear – as a prostitute, a child bride, and an actress playing a male role – they are the subjects of male violence, objectification and suppression. Given the current climate of sexual harassment and abuse allegations, I am trying to come to terms over whether this production is timely or outdated. Is it a reflection on the institutional sexual abuse by men in power that is coming to light right now? Or, if the sexual violence here is, in my view, fairly gratuitous, is it fair to say that Poutney’s 1982 work is of a different era, and showing its age? These are thoughts that I am still trying to reconcile. As such, the jury’s out on this House of the Dead.
Originally written for Young Critics North Wales in October 2017.