Saturday 27 November 2010


Joseph K, Gate Theatre, London

Shortly after Joseph K’s arrest, we hear him on the phone to an advice hotline. In the same manner as one of those excruciating online banking services, the automatic message presents Joseph K with a number of options. We scroll through a category of crimes, each of which comes with a set of sub-categories.  The recorded voice reaches ‘Rape’ and a list of options is presented: ‘Was your rape: a) violent, b) ambiguous or c) not rape’. It is a very funny line – but one that also helps explain the success of Tom Basden’s excellent, contemporary adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial.

As the line suggests, Basden’s context and comedy merge seemlessly with Kafka’s original novel. The endless maze of answerless questions and faceless figures that Kakfa’s Josef K encounters is mirrored in the modern-day working environment, with its bludgeoning bureacracy and impersonal interactions. One doesn’t have to dig too deeply beneath the surface of office life (perhaps this is why The Office worked so well) to find a glistening glut of tragic heroes.

The tone and structure of Kafka’s novel and Basden’s comic adaptation also complement each other nicely. Kafka’s surreal story is woven together using a persistent, extended internal logic. This is what allows him to kick off with a relatively normal scenario – Josef K’s surprise arrest – and keep on pushing, upping the desperation with tiny twists in detail until he eventually reaches a bizarre and disturbing conclusion. Basden also uses extended logic to gradually exacerbate K’s office nightmare - but he mostly uses it to just create good gags.  Each scene starts with the whisper of a joke that is slowly amped up, the logic stretched to snapping point, until the punchline is finally released.

After the arrest, which takes place in a Holiday Inn style room composed of an interlocking series of rectangular walls (a clever, if sometimes cumbersome design from Chloe Lamford), Joseph K is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of technological failure: his mobile phone stops working, his credit card is barred and his passport denied. All those gadgets designed to make our life easier suddenly turn in on middle-management man, Joseph. Basden’s comedy often arises from presenting these injustices in reverse order -  a technique that reminds one of Monty Python, whose mantra was to make a big deal out of the small things, and small fry out of the big stuff. So, as Joseph lists his woes, including his inability to travel or get hold of any cash, he finishes with the triumpant (very funny) flourish: ‘And my Boots points have been revoked!’

Pip Carter, who plays the beleagured Joseph K, performs maturely and sticks to his role as straight man, happy to be outshone by his comic sidekicks. The play is much funnier and more believable because of this restraint. Tom Basden’s own characteristically low-key performance suits the show perfectly; his deadpan delivery works particularly well when he takes on the role of the unruffable sidekick in charge of Joseph K’s arrest. Tim Key has the showiest roles and makes the most of the increasingly surreal setting, in which he is obviously so comfortable. Playing Joseph K’s lawyer, Key sits in an office near the back-stage (now in the heart of designer Lamford’s oblique maze), surrounded by an array of stuffed and spot-lit cats. The backdrop is utterly bizarre but this is why Basden and Key are so good at adapting Kafka: the devil is in the detail.

The only time the show slips is in the final scene, when the tone snaps from spikey comedy to something much sharper. The atmosphere clouds over, as Joseph K is confronted by his initial captors and driven to his death. This final scene should be a natural extension of the story and, in Kafka’s novel, which progresses much more slowly through the devastating dead-ends, it is.  But Basden and director Lyndsey Tuner do not allow enough time to let the darkness settle and the scenes play too lightly for too long.  When Basden points a gun towards Josef K’s head in the play’s climax, it feels like a disappointingly abrupt conclusion, rather than the now longed-for termination of Joseph K’s torturous trial. 

Till 18 December 2010


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