Monday, November 22, 2010

Joseph K at the Gate Theatre

It begins with a knock at the door. From the moment on his thirtieth birthday when two blandly efficient men in suits arrest Joseph K for an unspecified crime his life starts to crumble.

His mobile phone no longer works, a block has been put on his passport and he can only withdraw £20 at a time from a cash point. Even the radio appears to have it in for him.

Comedian Tom Basden’s effective contemporary reworking of Kafka’s The Trial is a playful yet tense and sinister piece of writing. The predicament of the lead character slots all too easily into a recognisable world of communicative brick walls and social alienation.

Joseph K, increasingly desperate to escape the charges against him, attempts to battle a system designed to send him in endless loops. He is pitched into an ocean of paperwork, automated telephone systems, and smiling employees with HNDs in empathy but no capacity to actually help him; release is always just teasingly out of reach.

Basden takes some targeted swipes, particularly at the inanity of radio talk shows, but the production’s strengths lie in the general sense of powerlessness and impotence Joseph feels in the face of the tyranny of bureaucracy – something that’s as potent as it’s ever been. It’s this idea of inescapability that lingers, this and the idea of an inevitable drip-down: even as his confidence and sanity deteriorate, Joseph is shown treating others with the same offhand callousness with which the system is treating him.

Pip Carter, as Joseph K, is suitably business-like and upright to begin with so that his gradual reduction into desperation and, eventually, into mute supplication are all the more unsettling to watch. Basden, Tim Key and Sian Brooke divide the remaining characters between them and this use of recurring faces is used to underscore Joseph’s paranoia. As in Basden’s previous play, Party, Key is particularly effective as a performer, playing both an arrogant dressing gown-clad lawyer who refuses to deal with clients not conversant in Latin and Joseph’s nervy underling at the bank whose career prospects rest on an appraisal he has repeatedly failed to complete.

Lyndsey Turner’s production maintains a number of balances, between the comic and the chilling, between a recognisable world and something more absurd and extreme. The tiny Gate stage is made to feel remarkably versatile but the pacing at times is a bit jagged, with frequent scene changes that require the donning and shedding of clothes and the rearranging of furniture; the covering fuzz of white noise doesn’t quite prevent these moments from feeling like lulls and from diluting the otherwise not inconsiderable tension.

At times Joseph’s decline can be read as one man’s consumption by mental illness, as he becomes convinced the radio is saying his name and that everyone, his colleagues, and even his brother, is out to get him. But the play twins this with a sense that the system really is out to drive him to edge, that there are walls he’ll never scale no matter how hard he tries and there are innumerable frameworks in place to prevent him from doing just that.

Reviewed for musicOMH

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