First Night: Kafka's metamorphosis into a figure of fun

Kafka's Dick Piccadilly Theatre London
Click to follow
The Independent Online
KAFKA can never have imagined that one day English audiences would be treated to a farce that revolved round the humble 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 - the brilliantly entertaining Alan Bennett play revived now by Peter Hall - casts doubt on the sincerity with which the Czech author asked his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings. Bennett's theme is two-fold: the ambivalence of writers to fame and the English vice of prurient literary biography.

He cheekily connects them by giving Kafka and Brod a posthumous lease of life and depositing them decades later in the suburban English home of an amateur Kafka buff. 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. John Gordon Sinclair's Kafka seems to hail from nearer Pitlochry than Prague. Imagine Muriel Gray playing Simone Weil and you'll get some idea of how convincing he is as a self-torturing Jewish intellectual. And Michael Byrne needs to be much more lewdly overbearing and common as Kafka's businessman father who arrives on the scene and threatens to reveal the shameful secret of his son's tiny penis unless Kafka rewrites literary history and tells everyone they had a terrific relationship.

By contrast, the wonderfully winning ordinariness that Julia McKenzie is so adept at projecting is ideal for Linda, the buff's frustrated wife. "Your constipation is in textbooks," she chattily informs the visiting genius as she tucks into a box of Black Magic. McKenzie beautifully brings out the way that Linda blossoms in Kafka's company and also how she is more perceptive than any of the literary types around. She notes that the likes of Kafka wallow in their insignificance but want to be recognised as nobodies. Quietly expert at being nobodies, women do not feel the same need to make a song and dance about it.

Doddering around on a zimmer frame, Eric Sykes gives an hilarious performance, though one that winks at the audience a bit too much, as the bewildered old father who thinks that to avoid being put into a home he has to keep abreast of the latest developments in Kafka's studies.

The play, which ends in a gloriously camp conception of heaven as a VIP cocktail party, veers between farce and intellectual revue. Keeping up the energy level is tricky, but Jason Watkins's Brod brings the production just the right middle-European vaudevillian verve.

Lastly, we return to the burning question. How long was Kafka's Dick? I'll let you in on a secret, it was two hours and five minutes.