"Kafka's Dick Towers Over Highgate"
by Cameron Dunham for remotegoat on 27/06/18

As the World Cup group matches grind to predictably flaccid conclusions something slightly more cerebral is stirring at “The Gatehouse” in Highgate Village. Tower Theatre’s production of “Kafka’s Dick” is a timely adaptation of Alan Bennett’s 1986 play and its comments on the facile nature of celebrity are increasingly prescient in our fame obsessed culture.

The narrative opens with a dying Kafka forcing his best friend, famed Kafka biographer, Max Brod, to promise that he will burn all of Kafka’s works posthumously. When this doesn’t happen, both men return from beyond the grave to have it out in the modern day, suburban living room of Sidney and Linda. There’s far more to the play than just this but much of the entertainment comes from Kafka’s horror at the world wide acclaim his work has received and the global fascination with the most intimate aspects of his personal life. Bennett’s writing and McKendrick’s direction are at their tightest in the first act as we rattle through a sequence of superb set pieces which are kept admirably light. I particularly enjoyed the surrealist farce of Kafka’s works having to be removed and hidden from a book shelf lest the author himself realise the duplicitous nature of his supposed best friend. It plays like a scene from Frasier written by, well, Franz Kafka…

The surrealism hits top gear in the play’s second half as Kafka’s father, also deceased, joins in the action. It is his threat to reveal sensitive information related to the size of a certain appendage from which the play’s title is derived and Kafka’s fear at this prospect is just one of the ways that the work comments on male insecurity and pomposity. This is further developed by Sidney’s intellectual belittling of Linda as someone who could never appreciate Kafka or understand his own writings on the author. It’s another pre-emptive stroke of zeitgeist from Bennett and I greatly enjoyed this calling of “Time’s up!” on the pretentious and male dominated world of literary criticism.

McKendrick has recruited an experienced cast for his production and they perform well as an ensemble whilst each having their individual moments to shine. Jacob Trenerry presents us with a Kafka of some gravitas and complexity but in his interactions with the excellent Joanna Coulton’s Linda we question whether Kafka is, at heart, just an old pervert who’s driven by his lacking in the trouser department. John Chapman gives Kafka senior a hurricane blast of bluster and his plotting with the seemingly benign Sydney – a wonderfully lugubrious Matthew Ibbotson – gives the piece traction to explore some of the more vapid and unpleasant aspects of the modern human psyche. Colin Guthrie’s Brod is simultaneously the most selfless and parasitic of the whole motley crew. Should we applaud the man who brought Kafka’s work to the world or should we deplore him for going against the author’s dying wishes and building his own name on the abilities of another? It’s a subtle performance that leaves the answer wide open for the audience. Peter Novis’ “Father”, however, is the most “Kafkaesque” character in the play. The elderly parent becomes lost in an unfathomable maze of questions and answers hoping to delay his inevitable transfer to a care home. As this situation melds with the onstage issues surrounding Kafka, the play comments amusingly on impenetrable bureaucracy and, more poignantly, the fog of advancing Alzheimer’s. Nicely done.

The stage set benefits from some clean lines which underscore the surrealist intentions of both playwright and subject. There’s also some pleasing visual clues to some of Kafka’s better known work: can you guess the relevance of the car? I’ll be honest, it took me an embarrassingly long time.

So if you’re getting a bit tired of watching grown men run about a pitch fretting about their balls, get down to “The Gatehouse” for “Kafka’s Dick”. It might just be the break out show of the summer: you know what they say about small acorns…

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