Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Back to (sur)reality

Franz Kafka was so ambivalent about his work he begged friend & fellow-writer Max Brod to burn it all when he died. Max’s betrayal, paradoxically, became his own main claim to fame, while Kafka himself is now considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century. A thought to ponder, and Kafka's Dick at Theatre Royal Bath does just that. In fellow-Czech Milan Kundura’s novel Immortality,Hemingway and Goethe meet in heaven to discuss the downside of endless fame and Hemingway protests bitterly “Our books will probably soon stop being read, but people will never stop prying into your life, down to the smallest details.” Alan Bennett’s Kafka, metamorphosing into a suburban Yorkshire living-room via a tortoise, has similar concerns. Surreal fantasy combines with 1980s sit-com as Kafka faces both his fame and his father, imposingly played by Matthew Kelly as a kind of vicious version of Alfred Doolittle arriving to claim his own perks from his child’s unexpected new status. David Grinley’s direction has some great staging: notably Kafka’s ‘trial’, and physical comedy between Max Brod ~ who has materialised by pissing on the tortoise incarnation of Kafka, get it? ~ and Sydney the insurance man obsessed with Kafka ~ who was also an insurance man ~ I’m sure you get it… as they vigorously attempt to hide all the tell-tale biographies before Kafka can see them. 
But it’s not all post-modernist cleverness and social cliché: in the second act the playwright gives the most telling lines to the ditzy housewife while her wannabe-famous- writer husband insists “Gossip about writers is what passes for culture.”  All the actors are superb, especially the double-act of Daniel Weyman’s Kafka and Elliot Levey’s Max Brod, who in the opening (pre-death) moments set the scene for dark absurdist comedy with Monty-Pythonesque half-looks to audience. Robert Innes Hopkins’ excellent set surprises till the end, and Jason Taylor’s lighting design deserves a mention too.
“Man doesn’t know how to be mortal,” was Goethe opinion in Kundura's heaven, “and when he dies he doesn’t even know how to be dead.”  A good thought to conclude another 'frivolous fantasy' on immortality, and whatever existentialist angst Kafka endured in life or dramatic reincarnation, his eventual exit was absolutely sublime ~ if that dance macabre was on Youtube, I’d play it on a loop. Showing in the Main House till July 26th.

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