Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Kafka: The Musical

Radio 3 gave a repeat airing of Murray Gold’s award-winning play Kafka: The Musical last Sunday, following on from its initial broadcast in April 2011. Gold is probably best known as the composer of the music for the revivified Doctor Who, which he has also conducted in the Albert Hall at several Proms concerts. He's clearly a man of many talents and impressive energy, and naturally writes and plays the music here, too. The Doctor Who connection is further strengthened by the casting of David Tennant as Franz Kafka, shortly after his departure from the role of the tenth incarnation of the errant time lord, to which he brought such style, humour, conviction and élan. Having also played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he evidently does a good sideline in brooding, self-doubting, reluctant protagonists. His Kafka is a hesitant, shy and self-effacing soul, and brings out Tennant’s tender and quietly intense style. A little like the first half of the Family of Blood Who story, where the Doctor temporarily forgot that he was the increasingly god-like being of Russell T Davies’ invention, and became a simple, dedicated teacher at an Edwardian boy’s school. This subtle, unshowy and beautifully balanced performance gives a good insight into his range, and offers an ideal opportunity to witness what a good actor he is away from the big, defining role which changed the public’s perception of him for ever.

The multi-talented Murray Gold
It’s fairly evident from the start of the play that we are hearing Kafka in his last moments. In a way, the play can be heard as the dying fantasy of a man gathering together the strands of his life and work. The play soon takes on its own Kafkaesque form, however, with Franz finding himself in the bewildering position faced by his own characters. His father pushes him towards taking his art in a more commercial direction by arranging a meeting with a Herr Grossmann, a successful theatrical manager and producer. Grossmann proves an impossible man to encounter, however, although others make it clear that he is constantly watching over events. Grossmann is the big man, who may even be God. Kafka never does get to see his face, although he does witness him undergoing the tortures described in his story In The Penal Colony (a favourite of Frank Zappa’s, apparently). Kafka finds himself swept up in a musical based on his stories, and on his own life, a script of which appears to have magically manifested itself without any knowledge of its authorship on his part. The idea of a Kafka musical is an absurdist jape in itself. The darkly humorous worldview of Kafka, in which the individual is invariably powerless and at the mercy of forces which he barely comprehends, co-opted by the musical form, with its relentless cheerfulness, optimism and sense of personal empowerment. It’s also a cruelly inappropriate arena for the talents of an inward, self-conscious and emotionally reserved man, who also suffers from a tuberculosis which has afflicted his throat and makes breathing and speech difficult. And yet here he is expected to step into the spotlight and belt out an uplifting, emotive final number, making an open-armed declaration of his love for Dora in the pouring rain. Kafka comments that ‘everything needs its quiet corner to exist in’, yet here he is being inveigled into starring in his own show under the direction of other, unknown people.

The musical is the kind of direct, big-time entertainment which his father would recognise as constituting proper success. His fractious relationship with his father, in whose shadow he always felt belittled, a hopeless failure, is represented here in a very English way. Herrmann Kafka is played by David Fleeshman as a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, surly, bluff and unyielding – the kind of character for which Brian Glover would once have been the natural choice. It reminds me of the inverted relationship in the Monty Python sketch, in which Graham Chapman’s hardworking playwright on the paperface of Hampstead berates his son for having dreams beyond his station and ‘poncing off to Barnsley’ to work in the pits. Herrmann admits to having read one of his son’s stories, Metamorphosis, which he found ‘cut price’ in a bookshop he was passing. He tells him that he must have got the idea from the names he playfully used when he was young, calling him ‘cockroach’. The women in Kafka’s life also appear as part of the theatrical environment. Milena is a writer working for Grossmann, confident and assertive, Felice an assistant at the theatre with a London accent, and Dora the object of his romantic love. He is told that Grossmann wants to turn his life into an uplifting story about the search for love, with Dora as the grail discovered at last. Even Kafka falls for the myth of true love which the grand denouement he envisages enshrines. It’s about 50 minutes into the play before we get to hear any songs, which are presented as if they are in the process of rehearsal. Strangers subjects elements from The Trial, Metamorphosis and The Castle to the parodic reductions of musical theatre adaptation. Gold’s tense synthesised arpeggios ably conjure up an air of paranoia and fear whilst retaining the necessary jauntiness of the musical number. Further fragments of song are scattered throughout, and act as parodies of various well-worn aspects of the typical musical. Dora’s number is the sad ‘soliloquy’ song of the faithful female companion of the title character – like Nancy’s ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ in Oliver. The sinister policemen who burst into Kafka’s room sing a snarling song in the stage Cockney manner of David Essex (or Essex-imitators, David being the genuine article, of course). Kafka’s father gets to sing an ‘explication of character’ song, which provides facile justification for his overbearing manner. And the doctor has a brief burst of villainous explication, barking out fascist, book-burning sentiments. The play has the odd bit of historical contextualisation, with mention of hyper-inflation and the absurd cost of simple, everyday items. But it avoids the temptation of seeing in Kafka’s work presentiments of events to come. ‘I’m not a prophet, I’m a retired insurance clerk’, he points out himself, precluding any further hints at darkness to come.

As Kafka gets drawn further into the production of his life, it begins to take on a ‘the show must go on’ aspect. His illness becomes increasingly apparent and debilitating, but he is now determined to continue. The musical is a simplification of life, a determined effort to present it in its sunniest aspect, and to admit of the possibility that its problems can be solved through a good soul-baring song. It allows Kafka to externalise his fears and self-doubts and find a last possibility of happiness and fulfilment. He gets his final moment of love with Dora, with the rain hissing in the background. This final scene is extraordinarily affecting, and is beautifully played by Tennant and Emerald O’Hanrahan as Dora. If I might dare say it, it’s infinitely more moving than the prolonged farewell which Tennant’s Doctor was indulgently permitted at the end of his Who tenure. Jack, the Silent Doorman, a character in the play which is being put on, is always on the sidelines, dressed all in black. But finally, Kafka gets to meet him, alone on the stage, and it becomes clear what his true role in the story is. ‘Everything has a reasonable explanation, doesn’t it Jack?’, Kafka asks, before realising the absurdity of such an expectation, and quietly replying to his own rhetorical question with a calmly accepting ‘well, perhaps not’. He is allowed one final bliss-filled moment of transcendence in the rain, though, the kind of generosity and optimism of spirit which musicals permit (and which has been given a medical explanation, as a side-effect of the final stages of tubercular illness). In a way, it’s reminiscent of the end of the Vincent and the Doctor episode of Doctor Who, in which Van Gogh, who similarly believed himself to be a useless failure, is allowed a glimpse into the future to witness his artistic immortality. Here, Kafka is given a peaceful end, with a sense of personal and artistic fulfilment, of life confronted and embraced at all its tortuous turns. In its musical form, he sees his life as being a self-contained thing, with no need for perpetuation beyond its end – hence his request, made to Dora as he expires in her arms, that his friend Max Brod destroy all his work (‘it’s best that way’). He sings his last song, ‘give me one more day’, a happy/sad number which admits of the value he has discovered in life. As it dies away, we are given the biographical details which snatch us away from the fantasy of life. Kafka died on 3rd June 1924 in a humble sanatorium near Vienna. Dora never got over his death, we are told, and died in London in 1952. Milena died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, having joined the Czech underground and helped Jewish refugees to escape. Kafka’s three sisters also died in the concentration camps. These stark historical facts show us the dark heart of the twentieth century, which Kafka’s fiction is often said to mirror. But he always insisted that there was a great deal of humour in his books, and this is present in the play as well. When surrounded by darkness, it becomes even more important to search for the light. In Gold’s play, the dying Kafka finds salvation and a hint of happiness in the musicals. It’s as plausible a place as any other to start looking.

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