Walking into the Michael Pilch Studio, I find myself in a living room. It isn’t simply that I am facing the set of a living room, with all the appropriate props and furniture—although, at least technically, that is what it is. The slightly rounded arrangement of the audience seats, which makes one feel like a participant of a cozy storytelling event, the evident care taken in the pretty, homey details of the set, and the warm lighting and colors all warm the audience up for Alan Bennett’s 1986 play about a Yorkshire couple suddenly visited by the long-dead literary genius Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod.
The living room – the private, the familial. Kafka’s Dick shows its sad vulnerability through a simultaneously charming and cutting conversation on fame and posterity’s eyes. Barney Johnson, who plays the shy, confused Kafka, wonderfully captures the character’s discomfort with fame; he hesitates, chooses his words, and turns sickliness into a delightful, magnetic quality. He makes the perfect duo with Lorcan Cudlip Cook, who plays Max Brod (the friend who broke his promise to burn all of Kafka’s works after his death) and has succeeded in making me believe he was born for the stage. With his magician-like hat and confident voice, which speaks at just the right pace to bring Alan Bennett’s one-liners to life, he wants, and deserves, celebrity.
A similar duality exists within the home that the two somehow find themselves in. Historical literary criticism and intellectualism are put into question as tension grows between fact-loving Sydney and his snubbed wife Linda, played by Callum Coghlan and Hannah Brock, respectively. Linda’s jeans and glittering, pink shoes stand out in the otherwise brown and beige household (that includes Sydney and his clothes), as does Brock’s passionate frankness. This production of Kafka’s Dick has many ups that make up for its downs. Some of Bennett’s humour goes missed and underused, and at times the show loses the prompt, catchy tempo needed to keep the surreal play trotting on—the production is at times wanting in movement and action, and I have to question whether the tortoise costume, though indeed funny, successfully realizes Bennett’s irony to its full comedic potential. When it does trot and gesture, however, Kafka’s Dick shines as both sharp criticism and raw comedy. Crude intellectualism and the public desire to render the legendary artist ‘naked’ are struck down as Coghlan’s Sydney, somehow managing to be both disarming and cruel, flounders in the face of the figure he is supposed to ‘know’ better than the clueless Linda. Such is coupled with scenes including Sydney and Max’s rambunctious teamwork in trying to hide all the printed Kafka books, in their effort to maintain Max’s lie that he did burn all the writings. The energetic throwing and flying around of books, which moments ago were studiously held and pored over as if they contained keys to the truth, produce pure, exuberant comedy that cleverly physicalizes the play’s themes—not to mention how impressive the stunt itself is.
Kafka’s Dick is a playful challenge—a critical comedy. It is a good, very entertaining play, but not one easy to deliver as such. This production by Prefontaine Productions, however, manages to cleverly balance Alan Bennett’s comedic seriousness and serious comedy, and when I leave the theatre, I have had not only a crucial discourse on what criticism and literary fame mean (which, as an English student, I find especially apposite), but also a really good time.