Dominic J Allen (after Kafka)
Belt Up Theatre
Review by Howard Loxton
The publicity warns you that you are going to have to walk and stand on uneven surfaces and in a cold environment so advises warm clothes. What it doesn't tell you is that having passed, one by one, through a door, you will be plunged into darkness, blindfolded and gently led forward to be left waiting for something to happen. If you might go and don't want anything given away please now skip to the last paragraph.
Through the fabric of your blindfold you can see blips of light, a torch flash or perhaps what could be a lit face, and you'll probably sense there are others standing spaced out around you but not until someone slips off your blindfold and the action begins do you discover where you've been taken - not into a theatre but one of the huge arched spaces beneath the railway tracks where someone is being arrested. You are tipped straight into the surreal world of Kafka.
I could argue that this is totally wrong, a misconception of Kafka's intention, for the essence of what happens to his Josef K is that it happens in the familiar surroundings of his every-day life, but this isn't a dramatisation of Kafka but the creation of a theatrical experience. With other stage and screen adaptations of this work the plot, if you did not already know the novella, has not been easy to follow and that is certainly true here. Though it precedes in a narrative line it is not a clear piece of story-telling and that's not helped by not being able to clearly see what is happening, nor to hear sometimes for this is a difficult acoustic but that, to some extent, is the point - and it doesn't matter.
It's totally promenade, you can move where you like to get a better position, though when you can't see whether that is a space or a person in front of you or guess what you are stepping over you need a glimmer of light before moving - and when you do you may still not be able to identify exactly what you are seeing in the glare of a torch or the flickering of a candle or a single low voltage bulb (Jethro Compton is responsible for the lighting). The cast weave among you, sometimes at speed - how is a mystery. Are they all on a diet of carrots?
Apart from Josef K himself, a clearly spoken and restrained performance from the adaptor Dominic J Allen, it is difficult to identify who is playing what and you have to rely on references in the dialogue to know who they are. The male voices, in particular, make an excellent soundscape, effectively supported at times by Michael Slater and Gavin Whitworth's music.
Unlike several recent promenades in cellars and other non-theatre spaces which have offered isolated episodes or art installations to discover this is a dramatic sequence in which the audience is carefully manipulated, mainly by lighting but at least once by gentle physical encouragement, to move with the action. It is not for those who think theatre is about a comfortable seat in the warm or for people who can't cope with the dark and if you are handicapped or need a wheelchair you should check whether there are ways to accommodate you - but for anyone who likes atmospheric experience I recommend it. Director Alexander Wright and his actors have produced something special.
At Southwark Playhouse until 28th November in repertoire with "The Tartuffe".