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Dostoyevsky’s Demons to be Staged in York

Students in rehearsals for their stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons
Students in rehearsals for their stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons

The University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television has teamed up with Common Ground Theatre and The Fleeting Arms, a local creative community venue, to produce a modernised stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s political 1872 novel Demons.

The novel depicts a society in which both people who are deeply conservative in their values and those who desire radical political change exist. The poor are powerless, with power instead concentrated in the hands of a small, rich elite; however, cracks begin to emerge and activists are on the rise. Director and TFTV lecturer Tom Cornford explains that this novel was chosen because “it deals with massive inequality; it provides the framework to encourage audience members to ask important questions about contemporary society”.

Cornford explains that the adaptation of this nineteenth century novel to modern day society has undoubtedly made the story more accessible and significant for contemporary audiences, particularly following the 2015 General Election and the ability for many young theatre-makers and theatre-goers to vote for the first time. Demons has no specific target audience, as Cornford states “everyone should be interested in the concerns explored in the show”. However, the material is geared towards an audience of ages 16 and over.

The cast features twelve students who play a variety of characters that all root from contemporary European society. Cornford and associate director Julie McIsaac describe the casting process as one to find “people who were creative, imaginative, and wanted to be a part of the devising process” rather than particular roles. The rehearsal process is likened to a “creative bootcamp, with plenty of contemporary political writings on the side”.

Some of the biggest challenges the creative team has faced have been attempting to create massive riot scenes on a 7-metre-square stage and writing the play at the same time as designing and staging it. However, Cornford feels that a crucial success has been their translation of key characters from Dostoyevsky’s Russian novel into modern characters that audiences will recognise and relate to, as well as the successful collaboration between students of different years (both under and postgraduates) and the Common Ground Theatre, the TFTV department and The Fleeting Arms. Cornford runs the Common Ground, and thus recognised a great opportunity for collaboration between York’s up-and-coming theatre scene and the university. Through this collaborative project, Cornford explains that “students get an experience of working alongside young professionals, both on- and off-stage”.

This theatrical production of Demons is very different from previous stagings of Dostoyevsky’s novel, with the creative team being heavily influenced by practitioner Michael Chekhov and director Frank Castorf. Techniques have been incorporated from the works of Chekhov, Brecht and Bogart. The show has been designed to be kept deliberately simple and flexible in order to highlight what can be done with an apparently bare space. Demons will be staged in the round and features 3D Ambisonics surround sound, projections and floor lighting. It runs for a thrilling 90 minutes without an interval, and is sure to shock and evoke emotions and political passions within its audience.

Demons will be presented by the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the Scenic Stage Theatre on the University of York’s Heslington East Campus from June 12-14 at 7:30pm. Box office: demonsyork.com.

The show transfers to The Fleeting Arms, 54 Gillygate, York, from June 17-18 at 7:30pm. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk / 01904 623568