Wednesday, September 5, 2012

'Joseph K' at LAMDA Linbury Studio, 4th September 2012

It's a strange experience to see a play which is absolutely hilarious and simultaneously utterly terrifying.  'Joseph K' is a LAMDA production of a Tom Basden play, first staged in 2010.  LAMDA have an excellent reputation for drama, and if they consistently put on shows as good as this I can see why.  Directed by Andy McNamee 'Joseph K' is a reworking/loose adaptation of Franz Kafka's 'The Trial'.  While the essential plot beats are similar, 'Joseph K' is much more than simply a modern restaging of the 1925 novel.  Both 'The Trial' and this play tell the story of the eponymous character Joseph K, who's arrested and prosecuted for apparently no reason at all.  The play was performed by four actors; James Corrigan, Jamie Wilkes, Michael Gilhooly and Hatty Preston.  Corrigan plays the protagonist K, the others play a wide variety of characters, identities shifting from scene to scene.

The central theme of a monstrous and incomprehensible bureaucracy bearing down upon one increasingly desperate man is as relevant today as it was when Kafka wrote the novel.   The exploration of how one man's life can be ruined has been modernised magnificently here, and a lot of the initial restrictions upon K's life are disturbingly recognisable.  He finds his mobile phone unable to make calls or send texts, his passport stops working, he's only able to withdraw £20 at a time from cashpoints and his bank card has been downgraded to a Solo.  It's a neat demonstration of how much we now rely on external and uncontrollable forces to just get by in life and what the consequences might be if these forces turned against us.

James Gilhooly
The play begins on the evening of K's 30th birthday, and we meet a man firmly in control of his life.  He's in line for promotion at work and nearly everything about him screams control and order.  Corrigan doesn't play K as a particularly sympathetic or charismatic character, and he reveals some very ugly facets of his character as his life begins to unravel.   Despite this, it's hard not to empathise with the man, in the opening scene he's confronted by two hi-vis jacket wearing morons who've come to 'arrest' him.  They've also eaten part of the sushi he'd ordered.  K doesn't quite understand what's going on, and eventually decides that this is some kind of interactive drama 'prank' that's being played on him.  This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the play: hilarious dialogue peppered with moments of unsurety, complete idiots being the public face of vast, sinister powers and one man's Sisyphean struggle against an unstoppable process.  

The production never sags: simple set design and quick costume changes keep the energy levels high and this quickness is crucial in maintaining both comedy and tension.  Every scene has at least one hilarious performance from one of the cast members.  There are some definite highlights though, and in retrospect most of these are characters played by Jamie Wilkes. It's fascinating watching these actors morph from high status to low status characters, from high-mindedly intelligent to a complete moron, from friendly to evil at the drop of a hat.  Wilkes, Gilhooly and Preston are all excellent at this, but it's Wilkes that particularly excels.  He has the widest range of characters to play, and watching his body language immediately and effectively allows us to see what kind of character he's playing before they speak a single word.  All of his characters are deftly sketched out, but Gabriel Clarke (or Gabe, or Grub...), Ian Huld and 'Bear' are standouts.  

Jamie Wilkes
Wilkes seems to be channelling Father Dougal McGuire as Clarke, playing him with absolute obliviousness and an idiotic sort of niceness typified by an annoying and unsure grin when he doesn't understand something.  At the other end of the scale is Ian Huld, the Oxford educated, Latin speaking, impossibly posh, doll collecting lawyer.  He's suffering from 'general cancer', and hobbles awkwardly around on a cane on what seem like two club feet.  He's probably the most powerful character in the play, but seems incredibly physically vulnerable.  It's only in a chilling moment late in the play that he puts down his cane, straightens his back and calmly and sadistically addresses K, demonstrating his complete power by ordering an underling to roll over "like a dog".  A further contrast is the character of 'Bear' a glazer at the Courts who knows by observance how the system works.  K ventures to his flat where Bear lazily sprawls over a grubby armchair.  He seems gregarious enough, but off to the side of the stage sits Hatty Preston, semi conscious, her hair in pigtails.  Midway through the scene he ventures over to her and begins obscenely fondling her, wiping drool from her lips and kissing her thighs gently.  Who she is is never spelled out, nor is what the hell is wrong with her.  Is she drugged?  Does she have some kind of disability?  In the absence of any answers we're left to deduce what their relationship is from the acting.  The way Wilkes interacts with the semi-conscious Preston was so chilling and felt so intrinsically wrong that it literally sent shivers up my spine.  And if that's not a sign of a great performer I don't know what is.

In singling out Wilkes, I don't mean to say that Preston and Gilhooly weren't both fantastic chameleons as they shifted between characters.  Preston was absolutely hilarious as the bossy Swansea girl 'Yvette', shouting at her her underlings to do seemingly random and bizarre tasks.  One of my favourite non-sequiturs in the production was her staring in confusion at 'Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith' being played for her.  Earlier in the production she'd also expertly managed to capture the horsey, posh, trust-funded Shoreditch princess to perfection in the character 'Rose'.  She's a distillation of the astonishingly unhelpful  and uncomprehending customer services rep.  I think she got possibly the biggest laugh of the night with a confused response to being told about King prawns.  "How do you know...?".

Gilhooly similarly manages to channel a variety of archetypes very well.  He's got some of the most sinister looking eyes I've seen in a long time.  His irises are so pale that every stare he fixes someone with seems like the stare of death.  This is used to chilling effect as the brainwashed former client of Ian Huld.  His ramrod straight posture and instant and unthinking subserviance and loyalty are genuinely disturbing.  As Huld gloats over how much he's dehumanised his client Gilhooly seems not to hear him, his blank, glassy stare making him seem zombie-like.

Hatty Preston
As K, Corrigan is in the slightly thankless position of straight man to the cast of weirdoes around him and he can't really cut loose in the same way until the closing scenes.  He is especially effective in the moments when his frustration boils over into anger. At times the play is so funny that you forget about the effect of all this incompetence on K, and his brief sweary tantrums have enough force behind them to make both the people he's dealing with and the audience sit up, take notice and treat the story seriously.  The play takes place over the course of a year and by the end K has been broken down completely.  At the end of the play he's a raving nutter, wildly throwing accusations at his co-workers and accusing everyone of being in on the conspiracy.  It's a credit to Corrigan that he's managed to take a character completely in control of his environment and transform him like this - and it never feels like anything less than a totally logical progression. 

The destruction of K is shown visually in a number of ways.  Naturally, primarily through the performance of Corrigan, but also through costuming, set design and sound.  K begins neatly shirted and suited, but as his mind unravels he becomes scruffier, his shirt untucked and his hair in a mess.  The stage also begins to fill with messy boxes full of documents.  As we proceed through the play these boxes mount up and paper is spilt from them across the floor.  K angrily points out that these documents are his life, and both literally and symbolically he's right.  As the paper accretes and the stage gets messier so does his mind.  Another factor was the sound design.  Another clever devices as Angus MacRae's electronic soundtrack, which grew more dissonant towards the end of the play, a neat and very subtle way to portray a life coming apart at the seams.  Other, more obvious examples of sound design were a satnav voice giving nonsensical directions "turn around, turn around, keep turning around, at the junction turn right... and left", and an annoyingly chirpy 'Learn Latin' tape played over the top of a pitched argument.  The thrust of the play is the deterioration of K, and the fact that damn near every production choice is thematically linked to this shows that Lucy Holland and Antigone Ikkos-Serrano are intelligent and thoughtful production designers.

One of the neater aspects of this play is that it's left open to us whether we are watching a sinister conspiracy intended to drive one man insane, or whether we're watching some grappling with an acute persecution complex.  There is a community of people who believe they're being "group stalked" by sinister forces.  They come across as, understandably, pretty paranoid (see here and here).  What this play does is suck us down the rabbit hole along with K.  His complaints are perfectly reasonable to us at the beginning, we, like him know that strange people have been to his flat, and we're with him as he struggles to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  But later his complaints grow ever more bizarre.  Did the hot and cold taps in his house really switch around? By the time he's frantically explaining his situation to a talk radio host he sounds quite bonkers indeed.  But did he fall down the rabbithole or was he pushed?   The fact that either interpretation is open to us allows the play to neatly function as both a critique of bureaucracy and also as an examination of mental illness.

Another little metatextual element I enjoyed and want to mention was that the play used the fact that the actors were playing multiple roles as a way to show K's paranoia.  Towards the end he mistakes characters played by the same actor for each other, a dramatic device so simple and efficient that I'm surprised I haven't seen in a play before. 

This was an excellent production, the only frustration was that as it was only two performances I can't recommend it as it's already finished!  I can't think of many people who wouldn't enjoy this.  I don't know what they do behind the scenes at LAMDA, but if they're turning out plays as good as this they need to keep doing it!

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