By Cameron Harris
Several dozen critical studies could be written on Kafka’s Dick. Alan Bennett’s play is laden with intertextual links that are a treat to bookish scholars and literary nerds. However, reading an English literature student’s analysis probably won’t persuade you to see the new production of Kafka’s Dick from First Theatre Company. But I hope this review will. The 1TC production, currently showing at the Assembly Rooms, is wonderful.
Categorising Kafka’s Dick is a tough job. Like much of Bennett’s output it mixes heaps of comedy with witty displays of learning and some moments of genuine tenderness. The plot centres on famed Czech novelist Franz Kafka and his less famous friend Max Brod appearing in a middle-aged couple’s living room, presumably at the end of the twentieth century, somewhere in or around Yorkshire. Kafka has no idea how significant his work has become since he died, as he expected Brod to destroy his manuscripts. Brod enlists the help of the aspiring and eager-to-please Sydney to keep his betrayal and the celebration of Kafka’s work away from the writer.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an absurdist play though. Sure there are elements of absurdism: Kafka morphs from a tortoise to a human; his father appears dressed as a policeman; Carmen Miranda dances onstage at one point, accompanied by Bertrand Russell on the maracas. One of the great feats of this performance is director Anna Haines’s effortless blending of these ridiculous elements with the mundane. The apparitions of Kafka and Brod don’t seem particularly fussed about being ghosts; Linda, the housewife into whose house the men appear, is similarly unimpressed by their intellects or achievements. Moreover, the set design is too understated and homely for an absurdist play. But Haines and her production team have done well to reflect the aspirations of Sydney and Linda in their set, whilst giving the stage some life.
The palpable on-stage chemistry between Poppy Sparrow (Linda) and Jake Hathaway (Kafka) draws out this juxtaposition in Kafka’s Dick. So much of this play’s heart lies in the moments these two actors spend on stage together. With Hathaway, we get the sense that, given the choice, Kafka would have chosen obscurity over being ‘a leading light of European literature’ if it meant an ability to emotionally connect with others. Sparrow’s performance convinces us that she is the missing link in Kafka’s life, and Kafka in turn is more attuned to Linda’s simpler, unpretentious outlook on life. That is not to say her character is simplistic. But compared to her husband, Linda’s aspirations seem less demanding, more achievable, and more fulfilling. Go see this play if only for Sparrow’s performance. It is witty, warm and steers well clear of any farce it could easily descend into.
‘Bittersweet’ is perhaps too simple an adjective for Linda, but is apt for Josh Williams’s performance as Father. The most noted audience reactions were to this shabby old man shuffling onstage trying to convince whoever happened to be there that he was not senile. He was pitiful and endearing throughout. As a dollop of comic relief in some of the darker moments this worked wonderfully; as a subtle compliment to the themes in the play it worked even better. Fathers figure large in Kafka’s Dick and Freud fans will not leave disappointed. Williams’s character is one of the few not preoccupied with penis sizes or posterity and is more concerned with proving his own competence. Kafka tries to stop himself from becoming an institution, while Father struggles to keep himself out of one.
If this all seems too complimentary to 1TC it’s not without good cause. The pace and strength of each performance on stage is gripping. Some lines with the potential to be absolute zingers did fall flat, but overall the funny bone was hit more times than not. And yes, there were some first night mishaps (two door handles came off). However, you will forgive it all because none of it detracts significantly from the modest stylishness, the smooth scene transitions, the un-intrusive and appropriate use of music (some Durham theatre companies could learn a lot from the 1TC technical team). In short, Kafka’s Dick is a real treat.
Kafka’s Dick will be performed in the Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thursday, 26th of January until Saturday, 28th of January at 19.30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Sam Harrison