Aside from one short story collection, Franz Kafka’s work was largely published after his death. He failed to finish any of his novels aside from The Metamorphosis, and before his death even left a note requesting for all of his work to be burned. Luckily for us, his literary executor ignored this request, and Kafka become known as one of the great humourists in literature.
In part, his failure to complete many of his works was due to a lack of confidence and self-belief that plagued him throughout his life. In particular, his relationship with his father was strained. It is this aspect of his life that Kafka v Kafka, currently showing at Brockley Jack, examines.
Using Kafka’s Letter to my Father as a starting point, the play takes the form of an extended confrontation between father and son. Franz’s mother and one of his sisters provide a constant presence both as a reminder of the families past, and to keep the two apart during the more heated exchanges. Together the family swirl around the room, somewhere between reality and a dream, taking anything tangible on the stage with them.
Jack Wilkie and Gareth Pilkington excel in the roles of the tortured writer and his menacing father. Their exchanges are laced with real emotion. The son, who can’t escape his fathers treatment of him as a child. The father, who worked so hard to provide for the family, and can’t understand the logic that drives his child to hate him. One of the big successes of the show is in its ability to look for the motives that drive the characters, and their actions.
Lighting is used to illuminate the shadows on stage onto a screen behind, adding to the sense of heightened realism. At one stage, when his father picks up a table, Franz winces visibly. On the backdrop, the positioning of the shadows makes it look like he’s physically being attacked by the table. This is a simple, yet incredibly effective technique which provides a sense of uncertainty for much of the performance. Sound effects laden with echoing sounds of water droplets, and slow motion sequences that hint at previous violence are also frequently deployed, although with more mixed results.
There are some issues with the play, such as the under-use of the female contingent of the Kafka family, and the over reliance on slow motion, but the show ultimately remains engaging throughout. The dialogue is sharp, with knowing nods to some of Kafka’s famous works, and some clever metaphor. It sheds some light into the mind of one of the twentieth century’s most popular writers, and the internal conflict that drove his career.
Kafka v Kafka is running until 4 February at:
410 Brockley Road
Box Office: 020 7269 9929
Image by Anna Nguyen