Franz Kafka – Apparatus
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 10th January 2019
“By wisely trusting in the source material, he has achieved a result which is both timely and, at times, compelling”
Though a century old, the fiction of Franz Kafka – its cruelty, its paranoia, and its pitch-black humour- reverberates through time. The concept of a ‘penal colony’ may seem outdated, a nightmare from a forgotten age, but Kafka’s short story of the same name remains a terrifyingly urgent vision of cold, bureaucratic madness, and ultimately its collapse. As such it seems fitting that today it should be brought to the stage, as it has in Ross Dinwiddy’s new adaptation.
In the original text – to which Dinwiddy’s plot remains relatively true – a traveller from an unnamed country arrives on an unnamed island, a penal colony. He is escorted to the place of an execution he has come to observe, and discovers there the brutal and arcane process by which it will be carried out. In twelve-hour cycles, a machine – the “apparatus” – carves the sentences of condemned persons into their skin, keeping them alive at least long enough to have an “epiphany” concerning their crimes. The only executor – and increasingly the only supporter – of the practice is an officer who, with almost religious zeal, explains to the traveller the baroque form of torture which he is about to witness. The only other characters are the condemned man and the soldier guarding him.
The small number of characters as well as the small space are both fitting for the dank, paranoid atmosphere of the play. The claustrophobic room housing the apparatus once doubled as an inner sanctum for its adherents; we the audience act as the ghosts of the many observers that once came but do so no longer. Matt Hastings’ traveller is perhaps more obviously appalled than Kafka’s original character, yet as a result he acts as the vessel for our horror. But the keystone of the piece is undoubtedly Emily Carding’s officer, whose wild mood swings between order and mania mirror the essential madness of bureaucracy underpinning everything.
Where the play becomes somewhat slack, however, is in its awkward transition from page to stage. Much of the officer’s dialogue is lifted directly from Kafka, but what works well in prose often becomes too knotty for drama. There are times when the officer’s explanations lose interest in spite of Carding’s charisma. Restoring the balance slightly is the parallel relationship between the soldier and the condemned man (Maximus Polling and Luis Amália respectively). What starts as detached, slowly develops (despite the condemned man’s circumstances) into playful and finally sexual, all carried out in silence as the oblivious officer explains the apparatus. It is in this sequence in particular that the piece best expresses Kafka’s dark sense of humour. And yet even this loses interest after some time, leaving sections in the middle of the play flat, in want of something happening.
Nonetheless, Dinwiddy manages to retain the cruelty and absurdity of the story. By wisely trusting in the source material, he has achieved a result which is both timely and, at times, compelling.
Reviewed by Harry True
Franz Kafka – Apparatus
White Bear Theatre until 26th January
Previously reviewed at this venue: