It’s easy to see what drew Enda Walsh to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” which the Irish playwright has adapted in collaboration with London-based ensemble Theater O. “Delirium” has the same focus on claustrophobic, dysfunctional families as Walsh’s other plays, such as “The Walworth Farce,” but its themes are bigger and more ambitious. Distilling the sprawling 19th century Russian novel, however, Walsh’s mordant script is almost overwhelmed by the clamorous production, which uses music, dance, sound, puppetry and projected graphics to create a carnival of the grotesque.
With its violent conflict between father and sons culminating in the murder of patriarch Fyodor, Dostoevsky’s novel has provided food for thought for generations of writers and artists, from Sigmund Freud to Peter Brook. Theater O attacks the material with cranked-up energy: From the stylized violence of the opening tableau, in which the Karamazov brothers tear around the stage to a blasting heavy-metal soundtrack, a frenzied tone is established.
Conflict between crude tyrant Fyodor (Denis Quilligan) and his eldest son, Mitya (Nick Lee), over money and a young woman, Grushenka (Julie Bower), is complicated by another love triangle, in which Mitya’s fiancee Katerina (Carolina Valdes) is loved by his resentful, intellectual brother, Ivan (Dominic Burdess). Observing these tensions and attempting to introduce benign Christian virtues, youngest brother Alyosha (Joseph Alford) tends only to inflame passions.
One of the production’s more effective aspects is its use of puppetry: Alyosha’s spiritual mentor, Father Zozima, is presented as a glove puppet he can summon on demand, while manservant Smerdyakov (Lucien MacDougall) provides a quick summary of the family history, using puppets to enact Fyodor’s two miserable marriages and the neglect of his sons as children.
Played with a manic edge by MacDougall, Smerdyakov emerges later as the key character, with his own troubled relationship to Fyodor eloquently presented in a series of projected images and drawings that flicker between past and present, real and subconscious.
Listening with fascination to Ivan’s denunciation of Christ and his long soliloquy on free will, MacDougall’s twitching Smerdyakov has a subtlety missing from the other performances, which strive to convey a world utterly out of control through overly emphatic, high-pitched delivery and demented movement.
When the scene shifts in the second half to a nightclub where Grushenka has been installed by Fyodor as a chanteuse, the extended fancy-dress dance sequences are heavy-handed rather than surreal, and the pace flags.
While Walsh always portrays skewed, often blackly grotesque worlds, his perspective is usually realized onstage with more irony and wit than is evident here. Even though his script is faithful to the core of the novel, a great deal is lost through the production’s relentlessly brutal tone.
With its discussions about sin and guilt, religious faith and apostasy, love and forgiveness, the novel offers constantly shifting perspectives on human nature and the quest for truth. Walsh has retained many of these central arguments, but they get lost in the melee. Perhaps director Alford’s participation onstage as Alyosha made it more difficult to stand back and a retain an overview.
“None of this is simple,” Mitya declares, slumped drunkenly outside a toilet door. He’s right, but what’s presented here is simplistic — while managing also to be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with the source material.