Review: The Castle

The spirit of Kafka lives! His final, unfinished novel The Castle – a sinister gem of world literature – is brought resoundingly to life by Old Dog Theatre. Their production features a consummate puppet show, as well as eerie string music and slow dancing – a gothic travelling circus. This Kafka is peppered with hints of Dickens and Lynch. 

The novel follows K, a land surveyor, as he arrives at a castle during winter searching for work. He claims to have been sent for. K’s efforts are thwarted by a mysterious complex of rules and conventions in the village that he continually unwittingly infringes.

It’s a deceptively simple story that half presents itself as a parable about arbitrary regulations, but then quietly blossoms out into a deep exploration of how destructive the human need to belong can be. 

Writer/director Trevor White skilfully communicates these subtle and deranged moods. He evokes the painful descriptions of futile longing, tender hopelessness, and erotic menace in Kafka’s writing skilfully. On the stage it’s like a mitteleuropean Beckett.

The poster declares “you misunderstand everything, even the silence”. Characters cry “there is nothing more meaningless than this freedom.” White has a talent for dramatising Kafka’s delicate mix of vagueness and horror.

Sam Hill plays K with a sharp ear for the absurd. He has that haunted Gary Newman look, but is also reminiscent of Jack Lemon in The Apartment; a self regarding white-collar worker with charisma and a sex drive. A dangerous combination. Hill’s voice is soothing and resonant, melancholy and proud. He parades the self-satisfied superiority complex of ambitious bureaucrats with gravitas. He does his best – and it’s magnetic. 

Alex Milledge designed a fantastic puppet K – quite 19th century, but also like a voodoo doll. The way the cast manipulate it is hypnotic. Movements are tight and disciplined, presumably thanks to dynamic choreography of Ruth Phillips. K’s dance with Frida, played with noir gusto by Gabrielle Nellis-Pain, is haunting. As is Christopher Mitchell’s original score – though at times it risks becoming corny, part eighties romance, part Studio Ghibli b-movie. As a whole, however, this just adds to the play’s feeling of alienation.  

This is a highly competent and original production that deserves to be widely seen.

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