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A CurtainUp London Review
by Rachel Ayer
At the Young Vic, in this eagerly anticipated new adaptation, the grubby undercurrent certainly bubbles to the fore but I was often left missing the extreme quality of Kafka's absurd text. This production, whilst brave, is never quite foolhardy enough to match its truly subversive source material.
Upon entering the auditorium we are ushered into Miriam Buether's oppressively cheerful orange and yellow set. If a Swedish architect had been contracted to design courthouses, this is probably what we would have ended up with. Steeply banked plywood juror's benches line an impressively massive travellator. This is the central playing space and certainly communicates the inevitable, unstoppable power of the system, Characters are left running on the spot, expending vast amounts of energy on remaining static as the world morphs around them. A brilliant idea but one that I thought could be used to much greater effect. I kept expecting something truly surprising or nightmarish to emerge from the curtained wings but the same series of beds and chairs, arranged in slightly different positions continued to come through, making the whole thing feel slightly underwhelming.
In Rory Kinnear as beleaguered banker "Josef K" we certainly have a compelling central focus. We are introduced to Josef as a successful if slightly unfulfilled executive, quietly in love with the girl next door but otherwise unremarkable. He is woken up early one morning to discover he has been arrested for crimes unknown, and the police have eaten his breakfast and are wearing his underpants.
Kinnear is increasingly becoming an irresistible force on the London stage and is a perfect choice for Kafka's rumpled anti-hero. I don't think I've ever seen anyone look so palpably miserable as he did rolling onto the stage for the first time, dolorously enduring a birthday lap dance. Later on as things started going really wrong for him he gained increased, frenetic energy best exposed in live-wire, twitchy soliloquies delivered in a strange, childish language. I imagine some might find these sub-Joycean ramblings annoying but once you get used to lines like "ee final settle, oom calm, control, safen interrupt sound ee familiar noise an rhythm comfort, hello papers…" it does start to sound close to the immediacy and fluidity of thought. Beginning the play in a smartish suit and tie, K's descent is accompanied by an incrementally more ravaged appearance, like seeing a city accountant later and later on a Friday night, as he heads towards his inevitable fate.
The rest of the cast feature several, similarly strong performances. Hugh Skinner, , does a convincingly slimy job as K's ambitious underling Kyle and Sian Thomas is entertainingly appalling as Mrs Grace, the charming but sadistic counsel for the defence, The ensemble could have been a little tighter with a series of movement sequences that didn't add as much as they could have.
Kate O'Flynn has some real heavy lifting to do, juggling six different roles as women who attract and are attracted to Josef K. Her best turns are probably as “Cherry”, an awkward schoolgirl who obsesses over his newfound notoriety with fan-girlish glee. Then there is “Chastity”, a similarly ironically named cleaner who begs a semi-reluctant Josef to rescue her from an abusive relationship. These women combine to establish Josef's tortured and confused sense of sexual guilt. This theme is brought firmly to the fore by adaptor Nick Gill as K is faced with the task of writing down every indiscretion of his 35 years in a comprehensive “petition”. We are treated to a long and exhaustive list of transgressive sexual thoughts and acts, each accompanied by wheedling, unconvincing excuses.
Director Richard Jones has a very fine cast on his hands, and extremely strong if unwieldy source material. It's a shame the final product isn't a bit more impressive. Rory Kinnear is always worth watching and his performance here is brilliant, with just the right mix of the mundane and the absurd. If only the production surrounding him had similar confidence we would have something really special.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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