Kafka v Kafka

Howard Colyer

Nameless Theatre Company

Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

From 17 January 2012 to 04 February 2012

Review by Sandra Giorgetti

Kafka v Kafka is a play based on a letter that Franz Kafka wrote to his father, which writer Howard Colyer translated and later adapted for the stage.

Hermann, Franz Kafka's largely estranged father, had asked his son why he feared him and Letter to My Father is an attempt to provide an explanation. It describes an upbringing filled with rejection, humiliation, emotional impoverishment and cruelty (at least by today's standards) delivered by an antagonistic and tyrannical father.

At age 36, the younger Kafka sees his wished-for marriage as a possible move away from this damaging history toward a form of independence, with a hope also of reaching some form of understanding with his father. Franz has to face his own fears regarding this third attempt at marriage as well as his father's opposition to it, expressed in Hermann's unrelentingly contemptuous and over-critical terms, the latter prompting Franz to write to him.

Whether you regard Letter to My Father as a disturbing, cathartic search for the truth or a ranting meting of blame, there is something voyeuristic about sharing writing so personal that was never intended for public readership. Howard Colyer's adaptation, set in Kafka's imagination, captures that unease in its dramatising of the emotional torment suffered by the young Kafka, not only in reliving the searing put-downs and embarrassments inflicted by his father but the difficulties he has in vocalising them.

There are references to Kafka's novels most especially in Hermann to Josef K, the protagonist from The Trial, who seeks to understand the accusations against him when he finds himself unexpectedly arrested without charges; the greater anguish though is suffered by Franz who struggles to reach the man whose judgment of him both rejects and imprisons him.

Colyer has created something theatrical from something that is uniform and often a hard read. By giving Hermann a voice and adding Ottla, Franz's favourite sister, and their mother he broadens the perspectives of the piece to its benefit, though I disliked the inclusion of Ottla's epilogue which I found to be both out of keeping and largely unnecessary. This is all the more so perhaps because Nameless Theatre's production pares down Colyer's original two act work to one.

The occasional repetitions in the text provide a cyclical quality that hints at the futility of the endeavour for both men, which is fully realised for Franz since his father never read the letter, and is a reflection of the timeless problems of communication between generations that will speak to grand–parents, parents and children.

Kafka v Kafka has a Magritte–inspired dream-like setting in this production directed by Leigh Tredger whose physical theatre background emerges through the staging. A sophisticated soundscape from sound designer Max Pappenheim helps create an interesting, disturbed sub-conscious place for the action but the lighting however is often gloomy and with so many words and so little light relief amongst them, dusky surroundings have a dulling effect.

Jack Wilkie's is a fine performance. His delivery of long passages is consistently coherent and well–paced and physically he gives Franz an appropriate sickly, gangly–ness. Gareth Pilkington plays the unreachable Hermannn; Jean Apps plays the mother and Ivy Corbin, Ottla, the two women who are both caught in the middle and observers of the father–son conflict.

Such conflict is not always comfortable but Kafka v Kafka says a lot about the man and the influences behind his writings even if you haven’t read them, so it is not a play just for the Kafka aficionados.