Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 17 November, 2010
“Darkly comic” has become one of the self-defeating clichés of theatrical blurbs, like “Lecoq-trained”. When applied to Tom Basden’s modern Kafka adaptation, however, it is for once no more than a plain description. The opening scene, in which Joseph K is served with arrest papers on never-to-be-specified charges, it is not (as in the novel) his landlady who may not come in to deliver his breakfast, but the delivery guy with his sushi; the entire scene turns on K mistaking a minor functionary for the sushi boy. That man is later discovered being whipped behind a door in K’s office in a merchant bank with an ever-lengthening name and a subordinate who waits months for K to sign his assessment, in a reflection of the paralysed bureaucracy in which the accused finds himself.
The very location of the Gate Theatre, up a narrow stairwell and above a pub, feels Kafkaesque, except that Basden’s adaptation and Lyndsey Turner’s characteristically keen production do not meet that word in its classic sense. Chloe Lamford’s wood-panelled “converta-set” is claustrophobic but contemporary, blossoming with computer monitors as a team of unexplained forensic investigators try to establish a paper trail of K’s movements. Basden and his fellow member of the comedy group Cowards, Tim Key, comprise half of the cast, and are naturally at home with material that is not conventionally humorous but blends three parts absurdity with one of pomposity and a healthy dash of black unease. Siân Brooke metamorphoses in the swish of a curtain from an ostensibly shy yet predatory legal intern to K’s power-dressed bank colleague, and the doubling of roles itself becomes a motif, until Pip Carter’s increasingly unhinged K accuses the same three people of being behind the whole harrowing ordeal.
Basden and Turner’s skill is in stripping this gag of any hint of smirking self-referentiality, so that we find ourselves wondering whether it might not actually be just such a tight-knit conspiracy. And so we too become Joseph K... as if the banality, bureaucracy, relentless legal opacity and lack of civil rights were not already all too familiar to us. Alas, the constant radio burble in the background includes no numbers from Scottish post-punk pioneers Josef K, but the production reaffirms that band’s declaration: “Sometimes, I know,/ It’s crazy to exist.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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