The themes in Franz Kafka’s writings are so well known that the word Kafkaesque is used to describe situations where baffled individuals are confronted, and often destroyed, by emotionless and relentless bureaucracy.
There are certainly elements of this theme in these four short plays by Peter Farrar and Rob Johnston (who also directs) inspired by Kafka’s works. An obscenely rich man can afford to pay servants to be idle so that the chance to actually serve becomes an aspiration and those given the opportunity anticipate the master’s needs and perform his requirements without being asked; thus taking on responsibility for his actions. A young couple struggle to see beyond their limited horizons and to take the opportunity to move on.
Katherine Godfrey and Adam Urey perform in all of the plays. Daringly they perform contrary to the material. The writing is highly stylised and the set minimalist but the performances are naturalistic and the cast give us people instead of representatives of a faceless bureaucracy. Urey creates a husband whose efforts to repress his wife’s aspirations arise out of his own insecurities rather than an abstract external organisation. Godfrey’s response of playing on these insecurities is the desperate and heartbreaking action of someone simply afraid to take a chance even when it arises.
The intention of the writers may have been to make the point that individuals as well as organisations can be oppressive but the effect goes further refreshingly generating emotions other than those of paranoia and despair that are associated with Kafka.
Rather than the timeless limbo occupied by many Kafka characters Farrar and Johnston set two of the pieces in the present day. This is not entirely successful. The point is emphasised with a large number of cultural references that, after awhile, start to cheapen the source material. We’re told that the choice between living in a cage eating bananas or hosting a show on Sky TV isn’t as easy to make as we might imagine.
But when the technique works the effect is genuinely surprising. The closing tale of a spiritual artist realising his time has passed has strong pathos. More impressive is the opening tale of an ape who has learned to behave like a human which is simply hilarious. No, really: a tale inspired by Kafka that is actually funny and not just because of the excellent comic acting.
Kafkaesque is good enough to make you look again at the writings that inspired the play and is, in itself, wonderfully entertaining.