Adapted by Hannah Davies and Tom Cornford, Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s 1872 novel Demons will soon be confronting the contemporary stage here in York. This story of social inequality and political activism against a ruling minority is showing at TFTV Department and The Fleeting Arms from 12th-18th of June. I was delighted to sit down with Associate Director Julie McIsaac and cast members Amilee Jobin, Oliver Patrick-Henn and Saffia Sage to talk about their production. With such a provocative stance on modern day lifestyles, it soon became evident that the play itself is asking the truly tough questions.
The cast and crew at TFTV are eager to show that the highly political world depicted in Dostoyevsky’s novel, is not far removed from our own. “It is our world. I think we go through moments when we are more aware of politics, like when there’s a general election,” Julie explains. The TFTV adaptation addresses, as in the novel, a group of young revolutionaries. Their production is focused on recreating an authentic contemporary political atmosphere. “With our adapted script,” Saffia notes, “so many of the key scenes are based on events that we’ve discussed, or watched news reports on… this piece is really interesting as a student at a time when you begin to think more actively about political discussions.” Oliver links this to a particular movement sequence wherein the cast takes directly from “video footage of different protests and examples of police brutality.”
It’s not about saying an older generation is so far behind, it’s about asking; ‘Why do they think the way they do?’
With an entirely student cast, the young actors may find the roles of politically inspired adolescents easy to engage with. Saffia claims, “Working on the play has given me an insight into that adult world of power and order, of established systems and forces for change […] It’s not about saying an older generation is so far behind, it’s about asking; ‘Why do they think the way they do?’” Demons does not, Oliver argues, exhibit ageist stereotypes. “There isn’t an aim to demonise [this pun earns a burst of laughter from the table] the older generation. The play asks the same questions of all its characters and everyone’s motives are challenged.” Indeed, bringing a nineteenth century novel to the twenty-first century stage seems an appropriate method for engaging with, rather than distancing, past generations.
What has the process of adaptation been like and what have the team discovered, or perhaps lost? “First of all, [we had to lose] the Russian names!” Julie teases. Nevertheless, their adaptation has generated creative replacements for what must be left behind. In search of an alternative for one character’s printing press, a “crucial way to disseminate information,” the cast “came to social media, the internet, texting and a variety of modern equivalents.” Despite the temporal and cultural differences, Amilee explained how the characters are “facing the same problems we do today… people are still stuck in the same routines.” For Saffia, the often intimidating density of Dostoyevsky’s text gave a wealth of character material. “There might be a lot of waffle,” Saffia jokes, “but you get information about the characters and the world that you might never had been able to if Dostoevsky had written this as a play.”
I’m suddenly very aware of my phone, sat recording on the table like an Apple-manufactured elephant in the room
I must bashfully admit that, despite studying a degree in literature, the Demons team beat me to reading Dostoyevsky. I am aware, however, that religion plays a big part in his wider work and I’m eager to know if this is a theme which comes to play in their modern adaptation. “Our production looks into the ways people create meaning in their lives,” Julie remarks, “what controls them and perhaps what has replaced religion. Systems today that offer meaning to people, like the internet, are central in the way we have adapted Demons.” Julie expands on the production’s theme of “internet as God” using the example of one of Oliver’s characters, Alexander Carey, “[Carey] thinks of suicide as a way to create meaning and as a means of control.” Oliver chimes in on the idea of this interesting belief system, noting “[for Carey, suicide is] sort of the extreme equivalent of deleting your Facebook account. He has taken himself off the virtual grid and he ascribes to suicide the same meaning as a way to get personal freedom.” Amilee sums up the production’s complex relationship between theological and technological, arguing that “in the way that religion might dictate a person’s actions, technology invites that same capacity for good or evil.”
I was suddenly very aware of my phone, sat recording on the table like an Apple-manufactured elephant in the room. What kind of role does technology play in this adaptation? Saffia elaborates, saying the focus is not necessarily on technology but on the way we consume it; “in today’s society advertising is inescapable and things like wifi and social media in our production are presented as part of what the audience would feel is a dystopian world. But, what we’ve tried to show is that this is our world and if we feel it’s dystopian, perhaps we should start to make active changes.” This unsettlingly familiar dystopia is one that, Amilee summarises, “controls you and you don’t even know it.” Demons, therefore, makes no claims to show a devastatingly bleak world view. Rather, perhaps more frighteningly, this production aims to show us only ourselves. “If this is a dystopian world,” Julie remarks, “then so is ours.”
*Demons is playing Friday 12th to Sunday 14th June at the Department of Film, Theatre and Television, Wed 17th to Thu 18th June at The Fleeting Arms. Tickets can be purchased through the University of York or through York Theatre Royal.