Writer and director Ross Dinwiddy had a vision of how Franz Kafka’s 1904 short story In the Penal Colony could work onstage, with a female officer in charge. After success at Brighton Fringe, the Blue Devil Theatre production transfers to London’s White Bear Theatre in January. Read our interview with Dinwiddy below – and then get booking!
Blue Devil’s premiere production of Franz Kafka – Apparatus, written and directed by Ross Dinwiddy, will run at London’s White Bear Theatre from 8 to 26 January 2019, with a press night on 10 January. Tragedy, comedy, horror and the absurd intermingle in a dramatic labyrinth of cruelty, obsession and madness.
The Traveller is only on the island for a few days. He’s no fan of the brutal penal colony there, but hopes to leave with plenty to write about. Today he’s scheduled to watch a man die, but nothing has prepared him for an hour in the company of The Officer – a powerful woman who is the keeper and guardian of the hellish Apparatus. And amongst all the horror and insanity just how could a sexual attraction lead to romance between The Condemned Man and The Soldier guarding him?
When did you first come across Kafka’s story In the Penal Colony?
I was researching Franz Kafka’s works with the idea that I would write a play based on The Trial, but having reread it, I realised that its length and complexity wouldn’t provide the focus for what I had in mind. I continued reading through his other works, came across In the Penal Colony and thought, ‘I’ve got it!’
Like much of Kafka’s works, whilst written 100 years ago, the notions and ideas both artistically and politically seem to find new metaphors as the years go by. Remember that this was written before the Second World War and the concentration camps, so it is interesting how society responded to this work after having lived through that period.
In today’s world, with regimes that use mechanised cruelty, systems that are unstoppable, notions of what people will do with cruelty to gain popularity as in the US at the moment and the so-called ‘zero tolerance’ for refugees here and elsewhere all bring even more facets to this story for me. It is a piece where the metaphor shifts as society changes. Having said that, it shouldn’t be made obvious. It is for the audience to find this for themselves. If people reflect on the things I am describing here, then that is great, but not essential.
Why did you think it would work well as a play?
It has an imaginative, high concept that I believe rivals Metamorphosis, but is a vastly lesser-known work. It is both self-contained and focused, allowing for a striking performance for the central character of The Officer.
How did you approach your adaptation? Why change the title?
I decided quite early on that I didn’t want a stage with four men. As we developed the project, I researched female officers in charge of concentration camps during World War Two and decided that The Officer character would be ideal for a gender change. Additionally, I wanted to bring the story of The Soldier and The Condemned Man out and, by creating a sexual attraction between the two men, I believe it has helped round the story out theatrically and gives a motivation for the developing strong bond that exists between the two characters in Kafka’s original. Finally, and this was very much inspired by Maximus Polling who plays The Soldier, I rewrote the final act where his character moves firmly to the foreground.
Regarding the change of title, I felt that Apparatus encapsulated the notion of not only the death machine, but also the apparatus of justice and state.
You’re directing as well. Do you prefer to direct your own plays?
I see it as all part of the same process, I have pretty much always written and directed my own work. The direction begins with the writing and how I shape the whole piece, a roadmap if you will. When I selected In the Penal Colony, for example, the direction started with the adaptation and the writing. The next stage is physicalising when the actors come on board. So, in a few words, I don’t feel that I am wearing two hats or that writing and direction are two different processes, but all part of a holistic whole.
Tell us about your cast and what they bring to their roles.
I’d seen Emily Carding in her one-woman Richard III. Now, The Officer is a very different character to Richard, but with the gender change and the fact that she carries a whole Shakespearean tragedy as a solo performance kept telling me I should approach this actor for The Officer. I felt that the presence she would bring and her intricate acting techniques would lend itself to this – The Officer has 75% of the dialogue and Emily would bring her star quality and other-worldly stage presence to the piece. She would be able to draw the audience in on a wave of ever-increasing madness and evil but encouraging a grudging respect for her commitment and love for the machine and the process.
Matt Hastings, as The Traveller perfectly reflects the audience’s emotions and reactions back at them, he is ‘us’ in this situation. Luis Amália is an amazing physical performer, The Condemned Man has no dialogue so his relationship with The Soldier needs to be conveyed by physicality alone. I view the relationship and sub-plot between The Soldier and The Condemned Man to be a counter melody to the central melody of the story of The Officer and the Apparatus. The one should enrich the other.
What did you learn from your run at Brighton Fringe?
The main thing was the way the atmosphere in the theatre would change on different nights. Sometimes we’d have people leaning forward in their seats and totally absorbed by the tension of it all and on other nights raucous laughter. It was interesting how certain people in the audience must have been influencing the whole – in a theatre with a capacity of 90, the tone seemed to be set by different people on each night.
For example, I saw people with their hands over their mouths suppressing laughter on one evening and witnessed a disagreement where one member felt it was utterly wrong to laugh when all around him were laughing. So, it is a play that provokes strong and widely different reactions, there isn’t a particular way that I want people to respond, but it is very gratifying that it does provoke such a wide range of strong emotions.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Simply that forming Apparatus and the voyage of discovery that all of us in the production have experienced has been an immensely challenging and fulfilling process. We can’t wait to put it before audiences in London.
Franz Kafka – Apparatus runs from 8 to 26 January 2019 at the White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4DJ, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7pm, and 4pm on Sundays 13 and 20 January. Tickets are priced £15 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!