THEATRE / A post-Communist Kafka

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The Independent Culture
'READERS or non-readers of The Trial remember it wrong,' says Alan Bennett in the 1987 introduction to his Two Kafka Plays. Well, what was Kafka like? According to Bennett he was a pain around the house, but hot stuff in his job at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute besides writing a bit on the side. This humdrum view did not escape unchallenged. As you may recall, it provoked a howl of rage from Steven Berkoff, whose own Kafka productions (most recently his 1991 version of The Trial) elevated the work into universal myth, featuring a defenceless little man trapped in a malign Expressionist labyrinth. To which one can only quote Bennett's comment: 'The trouble with Kafka is that he didn't know the word Kafkaesque.'

The late Jan Grossman, had he been around to witness these self-mirroring acts of appropriation, might have concluded that someone had been telling lies about Joseph K. Bennett and Berkoff are not alone. Theatres around the world have used The Trial as a quarry to be pillaged for local meanings. What sets Grossman's version apart is that it returns Kafka to his home town. Instead of the totalitarian fantasies projected on to the work by outsiders, here is the day-to-day Prague of seedy lodging houses, cramped waiting-rooms and noble public buildings, a place at once down-to-earth and fabulous, where a dejected queue of litigants can metamorphose into a flock of birds, and the awesome Dantean sound score is soberly ascribed to the organ of St Ursula's Church.

For this story, both elements are indispensable. Whatever its other possible meanings, The Trial is about the gulag: the unseen pit of interrogation, judgment, dispossession and extinction which may at any time open under your feet, and which supplies our secular substitute for hell. Unless K has real business at the bank, unless he has a nice little thing going with Miss Burstner, there will be no sense of vertigo when he is summoned to an obscure tribunal and office chat is drowned under the screams of the flogged.

I missed Grossman's own production at the 1966 World Theatre season. It must have had a very different meaning then. In Lida Engelova's version for the European Stage Company (which makes it the third company with those initials) it delivers a contemporary warning from the depths of the Communist past. K is no longer a hopeless Mr Zero. As James Wilby plays him, he is a spirited citizen well able to look after himself, and not much alarmed when the loutish warders (Jake Nightingale and David Barber) invade his bedroom; such things happen in his country. Nor is he merely protecting himself. He is protesting, he says, on behalf of all the other unjustly accused who cannot fight back. Then, sensing the immensity of the Court's network, he turns to the house with the blanket accusation: 'So you all work for them.' As Jaroslav Malina's set consists of a timber and cobbled semi-circle whose other half is the auditorium, the effect of this speech is to identify the audience with the compromised onlookers who haunt the set's upper gallery, snickering at the paranoid outsider who imagines himself to be guiltless.

Paranoia or prophesy, this is the show's turning point, from which it develops into an anatomy of guilt. Whether K's scenes are with office robots or with the women who give him the illusion of escape, every step he takes serves to strengthen the verdict. This is finally driven home in the late scenes with the Advocate and the voluptuous Lenka (a deadly and stunning partnership by Peter Eyre and Estelle Kohler). But by then, simply by exercising his supposed rights of complaint, K has already become an informer and thus the property of the Court. The production lives and breathes, while also functioning as a lethal machine: a psychological equivalent of the drill in The Penal Colony, stencilling the word 'Guilty' ever deeper into the flesh, to ensure that the victim consents to the judgment before the needle pierces his heart.

Programmes for the 1968 production of Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse included an elegantly printed little collection of Hampton's Rimbaud and Verlaine translations. This was no mere keepsake, but an essential part of the show. The Rimbaud-Verlaine relationship is much more interesting than that of Wilde and Alfred Douglas; but it lacks a strong story line. Verlaine quits his wife for the 16-year-old prodigy and they spend four years drifting through some of the worst bed-sitting- rooms in Europe before Rimbaud walks out on his lover and on literature. They did not put their genius into life; they put it into poetry which Hampton rightly concluded to be unstageable. What the play does explore is a superbly characterised bond between a violent sentimentalist and a ruthlessly clear- sighted visionary - 'Mortal, angel and devil, I mean Rimbaud,' as Verlaine put it. Hampton achieves some bravura public scenes, showing the farouche juvenile's shattering impact on the art- fancying bourgeoisie; but the heart of the piece is in the private world of conflict and transcendence which the partners achieve amid the squalor of King's Cross and the Dead Rat Cafe.

Lisa Forrell's production, set against a backdrop of empties and superfluous atmospheric tableaux, plays down the references to the Paris Commune and to Verlaine's trial which figured prominently in David Hare's 1981 revival. Its strength is in the central casting, where it sustains the difficult balance between an all-too-human self-pitying drunk and a monastically dedicated experimentalist who often seems hardly human at all. Beginning as a wife-beater in a natty suit and ending as a limping alcoholic wreck, Greg Hicks's Verlaine emerges from every folly and humiliation with his integrity intact. That is the power of this play. It smuggles in no bourgeois value judgements. But it is Oliver Milburn as Rimbaud who really wipes them out. From his first entrance into the Fleurville drawing room, lighting up his clay pipe and bad-mouthing Musset, he exists on a plane of his own, blindly indifferent to the havoc he creates in pursuit of his goal. Rimbaud may be unknowable, but Milburn's variously demonic, callow and physically electrifying performance brings him closer than ever. A wonderful debut.

In Cracks, a piece dating back to 1973, Martin Sherman delivers a requiem for California's hippies in the form of an Agatha Christie country-house thriller. In troop the party of sensation- seekers in their beads and buckskins, to make merry in a psychedelic grotto where their stoned host has just been gunned down, all doomed to join him on the fleshpile. Sherman cheekily disdains to clear up the mystery; but the material is richly performable, and with this company - including Peter Whitman as a cross-dressing docker, Deborah Norton as a swinger at her last gasp, and Jane Gurlett as a mouse- voiced groupie possessed by the dybbuk of her stentorian analyst - you can only regret the carnage. For once, a stage party is also fun out front.

'Trial', Young Vic, 071-928 6363. 'Total Eclipse', Greenwich, 081-858 7755. 'Cracks', King's Head, 071-226 1916.