Last night saw Lion Theatre Company’s production of Joseph K open to a modestly filled Assembly Rooms, though I think election fever might explain the poor attendance. Why people stayed to the end, however, is beyond me. Last night was one of the most frustrating theatre experiences of my life. This would have been fine if director Qasim Salam had intended his audience to be so jolted by a wobbly set and even wobblier actors. Perhaps he did. But the sloppiness of this production was excessive and risked falling into inadvertent farce. The play isn’t long enough for an interval, but such a manic and messy show desperately needs one.
The premise is attractive enough: Tom Basden has adapted The Trial by Franz Kafka and relocated the action to modern day London. Joseph K is arrested on the evening of his 30th birthday by two voluntary state officials, after which he must navigate the impenetrable state bureaucracy to find out why he was arrested in the first place. Sam Rietbergen and Tristan Robinson are at their best as the volunteer goons sent to Joseph K’s house. The comic acting at this point was subtle, but this wasn’t carried forward much as the show went on. Rietbergen does re-appear for another hilarious turn alongside the equally brilliant Charlie Whitehead as the two dim-witted and vapid bureaucrats to whom Joseph K must report. Again, the laughs came from well-measured comic timing and not from excessive shouting and mad dashes across the stage. The total lack of sympathy from these two bureaucrats is underpinned by intriguing philosophical ideas concerning ‘is’ and ‘ought’ – but such ideas are lost in the messy fabric and manic transitions of the play.
Given Joseph K’s failure to elicit any kind of sympathy from the unthinking and shallow characters who surround him, we might expect to feel something for him from the stalls. But Barney Mercer’s performance as Joseph seemingly asks for nothing and gets nothing in return. He goes from slightly pompous to maniacally angry as quick as you like. He may gaze forlornly into the distance from time to time and break down occasionally. But he gets no real sympathy and this drags the play out for far too long. It lacks heart. If the audience is just as indifferent to Joseph K’s problems as the characters are, then it bears asking exactly why we’re watching the play. Mercer may scream as loudly as he likes on stage; but if we’re not with him, we may as well go home.
Even more frustrating, then, was watching potentially rich and dynamic relationships between Joseph K and other characters fall flat. Charlie Whitehead does a fine job as Minty, Joseph’s sister, but her best scenes in this role are opposite Tristan Robinson as Ian, her eccentric, doll-collecting, law-practising university chum. It’s not only that Whitehead and Robinson are given great lines about holidaying in Syria and scoffing at non-Latin speakers, they are simply drawn to one another. Shannon Burke does her best as the legal intern working for Ian who falls desperately for Joseph K, but her performance as the doting admirer is a bit overdone and more irritating than anything else.
But we can’t just blame the actors for the lack of any dynamism on stage. The real culprits were the crew, the ones who decided to use wheeled partitions, a large concentration of furniture, and have paper strewn all over the set. Any health and safety officers in the audience probably had aneurysms by the end. Using the two available levels in the Assembly Rooms is an inspired idea and not enough productions do it. But the set was wobbly. More than that, it was downright lethal. Tyler Rainford got his biggest laughs of the evening completely by accident when he tripped over the bottom of a partition and a bench, bringing both crashing down on top of him. Other than that he did little of note. Such incidents were unnecessary distractions and easily avoided. It didn’t help that the entire cast were in morph suits and more liable to slip and slide over the stage. Incidentally, I had expected to dislike the use of morph suits when the curtain went up. But they were an inspired choice by Salam, despite the risk of injury involved when worn on such a messy platform.
Obviously, there were redeeming qualities to Joseph K. Rietbergen and his pal Alex Taylor seemed to be having a rare old time together and that was charming in its way. But there’s too much at fault. The energy and pace are excessive; the technical direction is out of synch; any empathy is found wanting. A tidier, less manic production from LTC would have been much better.
‘Joseph K’ will be performed at the Assembly Rooms from Thursday 8th June until Friday 9th June at 19:30, and on Saturday 10th June at 18:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Sam Harrison