The Castle is a story by Franz Kafka – and if you didn’t know that already, you’ll guess as soon as the action begins. The story follows a land surveyor known only as K, who’s been recruited to map a faraway village in the shadow of an eponymous castle. He tries to set to work, but he’s frustrated at every stage by the village’s impractical rules, which are followed and enforced by an apparently-uncomplaining population. Somewhere in the background is a mysterious ruler known as Klamm… yet K cannot meet him… for he is never allowed to approach the castle.
At its best, Old Dog Theatre’s version of the story is both stylised and stylish. A beautiful opening scene sees K, in puppet form, trudging through a blizzard en route to the village – while Sam Hill, the live actor who plays K for the rest of the piece, shivers in sympathy with his tiny alter ego. In another memorable scene K finally meets the village’s mayor, evoked here as a uniform with nobody inside, a reflection both of anonymous bureaucracy and the hollowness of the mayor’s power.
But those striking visuals don’t last for the whole hour and, when it turns into a more conventional piece of theatre, a few weaknesses show. Most of the actors play multiple roles, which – coupled with the inherently absurd nature of Kafka’s world – left me occasionally confused about exactly who was who. The episodic structure is a little frustrating too; with a smoother flow, it might be easier to feel immersed in the storytelling, and to appreciate the changes we witness in K – finely and delicately expressed by Hill.
The narration has a pleasingly epic sweep, but the flip-side to that is that it’s not always easy to empathise with the characters who inhabit this nightmarish world. The story really turns on Amalia, the castle messenger’s sister, and the alleged ‘disgrace’ she has brought on her family; but her significance only emerges towards the end, when it’s a little late to feel a true connection. To put it bluntly, in such a faceless world, we need to be told who we’re supposed to care about.
Kafka’s original novel famously ends mid-sentence, interrupted by the author’s death. The conclusion added here is clever and unexpected, playing neatly into the themes of alienation and conformity this adaptation explores. But perhaps it overreaches; if I’ve understood it right, it’s suggesting a seismic change within the Castle, which feels at odds with both Kafka’s intent and with what we’ve seen before. A more modest version of the same device would be more credible, and would make the point about real-world society every bit as well.
So there are pluses and minuses, but it’s well worth seeing The Castle, both for moments of striking beauty and for the moral of its cautionary tale. It’s a strong debut from Old Dog Theatre, and augurs well for their work in future years.