Review: The Idiot by Neworld Theatre in Partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre

In the first act of The Idiot, one of the characters issues a statement to the effect of, “there are two types of people in this world. Those who are lead by their head, and those who are lead by their heart.” Sitting and watching the play, it occurred that this same principle might be applied to theatre; that, to greater or lesser degrees, some plays convey their story and message in a cerebral manner, some in an emotional manner. If this is so, then The Idiot would fall into the category of plays that speak to the head.

Kevin MacDonald as Prince Myshkin. Photo by Tim Matheson

Though some might interpret this as a negative statement, it is not. There are many great works that can be categorized in this manner – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Mousetrap, or Vancouver’s currently-running Red. In James Fagan Tait’s highly literary adaptation, the story and ideas are conveyed in the words, and not always the expression. The audience must therefore be intellectually attuned and pay close attention in order to fully appreciate the nuance and meaning present in the narrative.


The play is adapted from Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name. The titular protagonist is the guileless, honest, and innately good Prince Myshkin. The action begins with the young prince riding a train to St. Petersburg from Switzerland after spending five years in the foreign nation seeking treatment for his illness, a type of epilepsy that causes fits and erodes his mental capacities. The unfolding narrative explores what happens to this inherently decent individual, as he tries to live in a society where presented exteriors and espoused intentions do not correspond with what lies beneath. The three-and-a-half hour tale sees Myshkin meet, charm, love, and placate a range of characters including a charming, affable rake with violence in his heart, an upright, moral general scheming access to a concubine, a smitten man planning to marry another for money, and similarly dual-natured characters. As prince becomes emotionally and romantically entangled in the lives of several families and individuals, his attempts to do right by all lead to more complexity and escalate toward a tragic climax.


The story’s telling is facilitated through some wonderful feats of theatricality, most notable of which is the music of Joelysa Pankanea. The composer created a series of motifs and recitative-style songs that are surreptitiously woven into the fabric of the narrative by a bass, violin, and marimba players who remain on stage at all points. As the show’s language has been updated to a modern vernacular, with no strong distinction between upper and lower classes, and work is performed on a predominantly bare stage, the score plays a key role in placing the narrative in Russia through its folk-inspired sound. There are few set pieces to speak of beyond the occasional table, chair, and skinny trees to denote the countryside, however, Itai Erdal’s brilliant lighting design has a transformational effect on the empty stage. Using the back wall of the stage as a blank canvas, the design is visually stunning and wonderfully evocative in setting the atmosphere of the scene at hand.


The performance is truly an ensemble work, with most actors performing several roles, and this allows for the integration of some striking physical theatre elements, the most compelling of which is actors appearing on stage to enact events from the past as they are being described. Two particular stand out performances were Craig Erickson, as the cautious, calculating Ganya, and Kevin MacDonald as the protagonist Myshkin. The latter role could easily have been a bland one, with its unyielding honestly, but MacDonald brings an undeniable warmth and sincerity that made the performance deeply endearing and amplified the social messages at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s great work.


Categories: Musings