ARRESTING DESCENT INTO SURREAL NIGHTMARE BRILLIANTLY REALISED
Written by Tom Basden
Directed by Uther Dean
Presented by My Accomplice
at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 4 Sep 2013 to 14 Sep 2013
[1 hr 30 mins, no interval]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 5 Sep 2013
It was a century ago next year that German author Franz Kafka embarked on his dystopian novel, The Trial. Three years ago, British writer /comedian (and member of the popular comedy quartet ‘Cowards'), Tom Basden, premiered his updated version Joseph K, relocated to London. Now the high-ranking bank executive's world has cellphones, talkback radio, international air travel to conferences … not to mention post ‘9/11' and London Bombings security crackdowns, for which read ‘surveillance', and the likes of Guantanamo Bay.
More recently, here in NZ, we have witnessed the Ruatoki Raids, the Kim DotCom debacle, the indecent rush to pass the GCSB Bill, alleged breaches of privacy during the Henry Enquiry into the leaking of the Kitteridge Report (on the GCSB), and a number of other challenges to our fond belief we live in a democracy (citizen-initiated referendum, anyone?).
What might once have been conveniently shrugged off as a paranoid fantasy, then, has an unnerving resonance here and now. Yes, the insidious phenomenon of anonymous accusation dates back to the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism and beyond; it was ever thus. And nothing has changed – or ever will – when it comes to the fallibilities of the individuals at every level of the systemic ‘infrastructure' tasked with maintaining ‘security' and defending our ‘freedom'.
Even as I Google through cyberspace for correct spelling, dates and terminology, I can't help but wonder where my metadata is going, what alerts are being triggered by which words and whether or not – if someone should suddenly decide I need to be investigated – I have added to what might be seen as incriminating evidence of … whatever it is I might be suspected of.
See? Paranoia is insidious. What we witness with Joseph K is the subjective experience of the titular character over the year beginning with his 30th birthday and ending with his 31st; known in social psychology circles as a predictable crisis in adult life. And although the crime for which he is arrested is never specified, so that neither he nor we can assess his guilt or innocence, he does – inevitably – become his own worst enemy; not simply a victim but part of the problem, impacting other lives too with his incompetence and lack of empathy.
As we witness the slo-mo train wreck of his disintegrating life, therefore, we might also be willing him to handle things differently – which adds immeasurably to our sense of engagement with this splendid production by the aptly named co-op ‘my accomplice', directed by Uther Dean with a formidably talented cast of four and splendid design elements.
Meg Rollandi has wonderfully expanded the Bats Out-of-Site space with a two–tiered set that reaches back to hitherto hidden depths. While posts and Venetian blinds that double as doors may inhibit the odd sightline in certain seats, the metaphor of obfuscation is entirely apt. Rollandi's costume designs are also excellent, not least because they capture the essence of each character (there are 16) while allowing for many quick changes.
The lighting design by Nick Zwart (who also constructed the set) adds appropriate texture. And Tane Upjohn-Beatson's precise and often unnerving sound design is absolutely superb (who knew a whip and a nail gun could sound the same).
The technical operating of Grace Morgan-Riddell (lights) and Jen Currie (sound), and the sometimes onstage and mostly backstage contributions of stage manager Kate Clarkin, assisted by Pip Drakeford, must also be acknowledged for bringing the design to life and ensuring the drama of Joseph K's fate maintains its inexorable flow.
Paul Waggott claims the role of Joseph K unto himself in no uncertain terms. From the relaxed birthday boy, through bemusement, confusion and anger to total discombobulation and ultimate defeat, he doesn't miss a beat. His complete immersion in the experience draws us into unavoidable empathy.
Both the political satire and psychological ‘truth' inherent in Joseph K work best when we recognise and believe in the characters whose behaviours variously affect Joseph, even when they are played at a level of caricature justified by his possibly distorted perception of them.
Juggling 11 characters between them, many of whom appear more than once, Erin Banks and Ralph McCubbin Howell find the ideal balance with well-delineated distinctions that go much deeper than mere changes in accent and costume.
Banks, especially, fully inhabits each of her six roles: the conscience-free contract arrester, Nathan Spicer; the conscientious bank executive, Wendy Kaufmann; the naïve office worker, Rose; the sexually frustrated perpetual legal intern, Leni; the investigating team-member Mason Disney; the glazer who can see through it all, Bear. A stunning achievement.
McCubbin Howell likewise relishes each of his well-defined roles: Gabriel Clarke, the Pinteresquely menacing arrester; Dan, the by-the-book office worker; Ian Huld, the doll-collecting and ailing Oxbridge lawyer; the obsessive Yvette, who heads the mysteriously-named ICSP investigation; a handyman called David, who may or may not be part of the conspiracy.
In relatively realistic roles, Sam Hallahan achieves great contrast between Joseph's blithely confident brother, Adam, and Morton Preece, the ever hopeful subordinate at the bank. His cameo roles – Leo the investigator's assistant, and Colin Block, who thinks he's winning because (thanks to Huld) his similar case is forever being postposed – are astutely pitched.
There are also voices on intercoms, talk-back radio and an inter-active virtual lawyer DVD, all unerringly true to life. It's important to note that while the ‘Kafkaesque' experience used to imply a bureaucratic maze of obfuscation and unspecified menace perpetrated by an omnipotent State, this contemporary world manifests the syndrome in the private sector too – to which many functions of the State (including the power to arrest) have been assigned. Privatisation has in no way mitigated the problem.
Running for 95 minutes (no interval), Joseph K offers an inexorable descent into an increasingly surreal nightmare from which we, at least, are lucky enough to awake. Amid the rich array of memorable scenes, my favourite is the one where Joseph waits for his number to come up while Rose and Dan chit-chat at their work stations. It becomes hysterical in every sense of the word.
A brilliantly realised production, Joseph K is, dare I say, arresting, and not to be missed.
[Afterthought: It must have been tempting to relocate the action to New Zealand but Basden's version is so steeped in British brine it would have taken more than place-name changes to make it ours. Besides, Dean Parker's adaptation was staged in Auckland in 2008 and that would probably be the one to revisit in a contemporary Kiwi context.]
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