Theatre: Never mind the size, feel the quality

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The Independent Culture


KAFKA CAN never have imagined that one day English theatre audiences would be treated to an intellectual romp that revolved round the puny size of his penis. But then he didn't want posterity to know about his work, let alone the intimate details of his life. Or so he liked to claim.

The first scene of Kafka's Dick - Alan Bennett's brilliantly entertaining play - is set in Prague in 1920 and casts comical doubt on the sincerity with which the Czech author ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn all his writings. What follows is an uproarious reflection on two main themes: the ambivalent attitude of writers to fame, and the English vice of prurient literary biography.

Diminishing the surprise element, Peter Hall's revival tips you off from the outset about the cheeky fantastical scenario the play will create for its farcical frolickings with these issues. Dimly discernible behind the 1920 Prague episode, there is a present day suburban English lounge and a middle-aged man reading. He's Sydney, an insurance agent, a devoted Kafka buff and the kind of man who would rather know that Auden never wore underpants than read a line of his poetry.

Via a naughty nod to Metamorphosis (cue tortoise), the play spirits the two writers into this world. Still unwitting of his posthumous celebrity, our shrinking genius will be horrified when he notices all those books about him - won't he?

Often blissfully funny, Hall's production suffers from some peculiar casting. More Pitlochry than Prague, and a past master of gangling low- key charm, John Gordon-Sinclair is not everybody's idea of a self-torturing, Jewish intellectual. You might as well cast Jimmy Stewart as Wittgenstein. And Michael Byrne needs to be more obscenely overbearing and emasculating as Kafka's self-made father, who arrives on the scene and threatens to reveal the secret of his son's tiny willy unless Kafka rewrites literary history and tells everyone they got on swimmingly.

By contrast, Julia McKenzie's radiantly winning ordinariness is ideal for Linda, Sydney's frustrated wife. Hilariously blossoming in Kafka's company, she bustles about trying to tempt the anorexic genius with "something different I do with avocados" and, as she tucks into a box of Black Magic, chattily informs him that "your constipation is in textbooks".

McKenzie also beautifully conveys that Linda is far shrewder than the educated types around her. Men, she notes, have to make a song and dance about being insignificant, and re-imagine themselves as cockroaches, beetles and apes. But women just get on with it.

Forever losing his grip on his zimmer frame as he reels from the latest shock, Eric Sykes is hilarious as the bewildered old father who believes that he will be put into a home unless he can keep abreast of front-line developments in Kafka studies. Ending in a gloriously camp VIP cocktail party heaven ("Go easy on those cheese straws, Mahatma!"), the play is a tricky mix of flurrying farce and post-graduate revue.

Keeping the energy level up can be a problem, but not when you have Jason Watkins's excellently vehement and Vaudevillian Brod around. One last point: exactly how long was Kafka's dick? I'll let you into a secret: it was 125 minutes long.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper