But where is the Dostoyevsky? Saburo Teshigawara’s The Idiot

The Print Room at the Coronet, London
March 21, 2019

Charlotte Kasner

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a muddled, rambling novel, suffering partly from being published hurriedly in serial form for financial reasons. It deals with many themes pertinent to Russia in the mid-19th-century: atheism, Catholicism, good, evil, the moral decline prevalent in society and, the overarching subject of whether it is possible to remain virtuous in a morally corrupt world. There’s much that we might recognise as relevant to today, which is probably why it retains its place in the classical literature canon for all its faults.

Not that there’s much of that in Saburo Teshigawara’s danced telling in which Dostoyevsky is all but unrecognisable in what is depicted on stage. The Japanese choreographer does not set out to depict the novel itself, but to “reveal the movement inside Dostoevsky’s words.” But what The Idiot is in no way, shape or form about is three elderly Japanese dancers engaging in an unrequited love triangle as portrayed.

That’s unfortunate, because there is so much richness in Dostoyevsky’s text that it could easily lend itself to a literal interpretation or to abstraction. The best works of dance that take works of literature as a theme often use a combination of both to strip a book down to its very essence, in the process losing its verbosity and gaining a raw appeal that works better with a 21st-century audience that is far more visual.

Saburo Teshigawara in The IdiotPhoto Akihito Abe
Saburo Teshigawara in The Idiot
Photo Akihito Abe

Rihoko Sato, Emiko Murayama and Tesigawara move with consummate grace but the lighting flickers constantly throughout as if it was trying to induce epilepsy, and gives the impression that we are watching an early silent film.

Teshigawara twitches and jiggles like a marionette manipulated by an inept puppet master or moons after the women who waft around the stage to tedious repetitions of waltzes. He takes an age to struggle out of his jacket and then two more interminable stretches to roll down one sleeve, scratch his arm and then do the same with his other arm. Why?

At the end, Murayama, as the Rat, scuttles around the stage enveloped in black, trailing a long tail like a malevolent escapee from an unseasonal Nutcracker. That could be a reference to DH Lawrence, who referred to Dostoyesky as being “like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows and in order to belong to the light professing love, all love,” but somehow I doubt it.

Dostoevsky wrote that in his central character Myshkin, he wanted “to depict a completely beautiful human being.” He would have been horrified to see him reduced to a gibbering invalid whose sole intention is apparently to trail hopelessly after women. Myshkin is of course interested in two women in the novel and marries neither. But he is a fool who, in his seeming idiocy, reveals his wisdom and saintliness when all around are corrupt.

The music is mostly lovely if very loud, the movement as an abstract concept is poised and at times, masterful, but the premise is just all wrong. Holbein’s portrait of Christ taken down from the cross features prominently in the original novel. Dostoyevsky describes it as depicting a dead man who is flesh without life, damaged and destroyed, with no possibility of future resurrection. He also suggests that this could be Mother Russia, an empty husk with no hope of redemption but also, of course, himself.

There is so much here that could make a powerful work that to see it denuded of all context is unfortunate to say the least and reduces this Idiot, like the Holbein, to a lifeless husk.

The Idiot runs at The Print Room to March 30, 2019. Visit www.the-print-room.org for details and tickets.