University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television in association with Common Ground Theatre premiered Demons last Friday, a new theatre adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel written by Tom Cornford and Hannah Davies. Set in a recognisable, technologically obsessed and consumer driven modern world, the play records the story of young revolutionaries as they embark upon a path of cyber-terrorist activism with explosive consequences.

Walking through into the TFTV stage, the first thing that caught my attention was the terrifically banal elevator style music. It resonated not only frustratingly in my head for the rest of the evening, but also in the play’s attitude towards a nauseating corporate world. The wonderfully twee soundtrack to the opening segued sinisterly into a restless movement sequence, in which phone screens were brandished into the faces of the cast who hypnotically regurgitated advertising slogans. This initial transition was smooth, dynamic and exciting; however, the play lapsed in pace for its exposition, with only glimpses of the explosive physical sequences which characterised the latter half.

What worked fantastically in contrast to this slower pace was the violent and stylised interruptions provided by Nick (Jason Ryall)

This division between halves of the play is distinct in my mind, although in reality the action unfolded over a somewhat overlong two hours without an interval. The lack of a break felt a little taxing to audience stamina but despite this, the scenes bled into each other and flowed naturally. This was particularly noticeable during the play’s establishing scenes which, although they avoided the static feeling due to the cast’s confident use of space, were inescapably word-heavy. In this, the adaptation had seemed to carry some of Dostoyevsky’s descriptive baggage onto the stage, which is perhaps to be expected in adapting such a sizeable novel. What worked fantastically in contrast to this slower pace was the violent and stylised interruptions provided by Nick (Jason Ryall). The surreal, slow motion atmosphere built through movement of the ensemble was complimented by harsh lighting and white noise. These outbursts of physicality dotted into the former half of the play built to an expertly choreographed and extended riot sequence, which featured wonderfully topical cries of ‘Fuck off back to Eaton.’ With real life rally cries included, the flashes of movement which characterised the uprising was an authentic and electrifying highlight.

Photography by Timothy Kelly Photography
Photography by Timothy Kelly Photography

The stamina of the actors in this production extends beyond physicality as many, if not all, of the exceptional cast acted as both named characters and as a collective chorus. It’s hard to praise individual performances from such a tight ensemble, each of whom embodied well fleshed-out and interesting, named characters too. However, Clare Duffy gave perhaps the most accomplished performance as a believably conflicted Tasha. For the most part, transitions between multiple roles were clear, but occasionally the distinction between characters could have been more pronounced. A fluid capacity for character changes also happened, at times, to confuse the relationships within the play. However, its positive effects were felt as the multi-roling allowed for a mix of simultaneous scenes and dramatic tones. The balaclava-clad mob which bounded viciously across the stage transformed with agility into a gaggle of corporate suits, spewing meaningless buzzwords whilst carrying equally sickening pastel balloons.

A particular design triumph was the scene in which Nick’s disturbing confessional monologue is recorded on an iPod by his therapist

Corporate rhetoric visualised with bunches of pastel balloons, like the infuriatingly catchy elevator music, was just another aspect of this play’s fantastic design which sticks a middle finger up to consumer-driven society. The TFTV floor was transformed into a stark orange with characters dressed largely in grey and with occasional orange clothing motifs. The offensively bright colour, like the invasion of technology and consumerism within the play, was inescapable. Lighting was used creatively to set this bold colour scheme into an even more aggressive contrast, with bright LED strips splicing the stage. This simply lighting effect worked masterfully to show divisions between characters as well as adding to the production’s futuristic, or rather unashamedly present day, feel. A particular design triumph was the scene in which Nick’s disturbing confessional monologue is recorded on an iPod by his therapist. This was adapted from a chapter, originally censored in Dostoyevsky’s novel, in which the character gives a similar confession to a monk. The technological transformation of this scene, as well as Sean’s (James Dixon) faith in the internet as ‘God,’ highlighted artfully the resonance of Dostoyevsky’s themes with our everyday lifestyles.

Though perhaps the epic task of having adapted such an extensive story took it’s toll on this production, the student cast who largely excelled in both characterisation and physicality carried this production confidently. This, together with the production’s appropriately technological design and staging delivered a thoroughly convincing, if not unsettling, exposé into the demons of modern life.

*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.