By Guy Webster
The risk of failure in adapting a well-known text for the stage is, I think we know, incredibly high. All too often, the source text casts a shadow over the reinterpretation that many productions fail to escape. Joseph K by Tom Basden draws its story from the pages of Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel, The Trial. While I don’t assume that Kafka’s novel is a household reference, it certainly has enough of a shadow to cast over any writer, or any actors, who try to reinterpret it. It’s quite a weight the cast of Secret House’s production had to carry; luckily there’s not a weak member among them and the text is carried on their shoulders to extraordinary heights.
In the novel, Joseph K is arrested on the morning of his thirtieth birthday for unknown reasons. The rest of the novel follows K as he tries to clear his name by navigating a judicial system that is both inept and deeply powerful. Basden’s interpretation retains the framework of Kafka’s novel but injects it with overtly British sensibilities and witticisms. In a British setting, Joseph K’s experience becomes a critique of classism, systemic privilege, and the hierarchies of the labour force. Director Sean O’Riordon is never overt about these critiques in his interpretation of Basden’s text but his interpretation of Joseph K (played by Danen Young) highlights what it means for a person – and for a man specifically - to have their privileges revoked in a process that is both absurd, emasculating, and ultimately terrifying.
Surrounding Joseph K are a range of characters portrayed with expert precision by a skilled cast. Juggling a myriad of incredibly specific accents, this tight ensemble avoids the caricatures that Basden’s writing sometimes dangerously orbits. Their performances are subtle, and their body language perfectly choreographed. Each actor ensures that there is no competitive pursuit for who can be funnier in scenes where such competition would seem easy to become victim to. Danen Young’s performance of Joseph K – a character written with the least likeability or humour amid such comedic characters – speaks to his restraint and discerning skill as an actor.
Sean O’Riordon seems to know that the strength of this play rests on his cast. Choosing to increase the cast of the show - originally performed with just four people – is a testament to the confidence he invests in them. With 13 people, the play has a strong ensemble feel that compliments (and at times importantly glosses over) Basden’s chaotic writing. Basden’s dialogue is incredibly fast-paced and each scene is almost filled to tipping point with comedic moments. Luckily O’Riordon diversifies the pacing through some key techniques. Using the cast as stage hands to facilitate scene transitions gave an incredibly talented, and naturally hilarious, group of actors the space to play. While moving boxes, dolls and steering wheels, their subtle asides – via movement, expression and character interaction – offered a welcome reprieve from the almost overbearing humour of the jam-packed scenes. While there were moments of dead space - highlighted by a disjointed choice of music – these transitions became part of the story and skirted the weaknesses of Limelight on Oxford’s intimate setting.
There are some difficulties that arise when the play attempts to move from its comedic centre to the darker undertones that the original novel uses so well. Riordon chooses to draw attention to some symbols in the play that don’t facilitate this transition and compromises the scenes that have higher stakes or that prioritise suspense over humour. There is a sense that, by the end of the play, K is simply the butt of someone’s joke; and while that emboldens much of the play’s interest in power and subjugation, it does detract from its deeper cultural critique which is essentially the skull beneath the skin of its humour.
That being said, the play was a joy to behold and all credit goes to a cast of actors that had me laughing for hours.
Photo Credit: Clare Hawley
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.