Six years ago Bath Theatre Royal revived Alan Bennett's little-seen 1980 play Enjoy to great acclaim leading to a West End run and a reassessment of a particularly prescient work. They've had recent success with revivals of his more celebrated works such as The Madness of George III. This year they have opted for the rarely seen 1986 play Kafka's Dick, which in director David Grindley's hands proves to be a consistently funny and stimulating piece of theatre. It too deserves to be a hit.
The play opens in 1920 with the dying Franz Kafka asking his friend Max Brod to burn all his work after his death. Brod, however, has the measure of his friend, and knows how to play on his vanity. Kafka wants his work to be both admired and burned and is a little put out by Brod's vision of a Nazi book-burning where the works of Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway are destroyed, but not his. The wily Brod also understands how the market works: Burn one and you sell 10,000.
We then move to suburban Yorkshire in the mid-1980s and the troubled marriage of Sydney and Linda. Like Kafka, Sydney works in insurance and is trying to write an article on him for his professional journal. It's not the fiction that interests Sydney, though, it's the life. He reads biographies rather than novels. This, Bennett is saying, is a particularly British vice: here gossip is the acceptable face of intellect. Things take a turn for the surreal, or rather the Kafkaesque, when Max Brod turns up on their doorstep having urinated on their tortoise, a tortoise which promptly metamorphoses into Franz Kafka. Much fun is had as Sydney and Brod vainly try to conceal from Kafka the fact that he is considered one of the 20th century's greatest writers and has adjectival status in Japanese. When Kafka's domineering father arrives and threatens revelations about his son's under-sized member further complications ensue.
The performances are outstanding. Daniel Weyman's Kafka conveys the writer's nerviness and strangeness whilst being equally convincing as a seducer of women. Elliot Levey's Max Brod is a man of charm and wit, who once had literary success himself but is aware that he has always lived under the shadow of his great friend. Nicholas Burns' Sydney, who uses books to avoid a real relationship with the wife he looks down on, and Samantha Spiro's Linda, his patronised wife, who wants to find out about ‘the bits in between' (i.e. literature), are funny and touching: It's something unexpected I do with avocados says Linda as she hands Kafka a bright green piece of quiche. Matthew Kelly is suitably intimidating as Kafka's father, his manic grin and concealing pure self-interest.
Bennett has wise and witty things to say about literary reputation and masculine self-importance, about our prurience and fascination with biographical trivia. The final Wagnerian excursion into another realm feels entirely appropriate and ends a highly entertaining evening on a suitably surprising note.