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Kafka and Son
Published on Wednesday, 17 August 2011

5 stars (Critic's Choice)

Assembly George Square (venue website)
3-16, 18-28 Aug, 5:05pm-6:10pm
Reviewed by Carmel Doohan

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

If this letter, written by Kafka to his father in 1919, were read out by a motionless man on a propless stage it would be powerful enough. Performed by Alon Nashman, it is simply breathtaking. He is Franz Kafka, and as he climbs the sparse wire furniture he seems to embody every ounce of his pain.

Kafka is a Czech word for blackbird and the set is made from feathered cages. He tells us he is writing as an escape, but can only write of those things he wishes to escape from. He grasps the dark feathers to use as quills but they flutter away, spreading black dust across the stage. He is trapped on all sides, but like the caged bird he must sing on; it is the only freedom he has left.

He is trying to explain, to his father, why he is still afraid of him. This is difficult, for it seems that Franz had a very Kafkaesque childhood; in his world the law was unnamed and unfollowable, yet could not be disobeyed. He describes a world split into three; one for him (the slave), one for his father (the law maker), and one for the rest of the world (who are happy). He then shows how this kind of entrapment is something we do to ourselves; referring to the simile of a bird in the hand and the two in the bush he says: 'in my hand I have nothing, in the bush, everything...and yet I must choose nothing.'

The piece is staggeringly insightful. Ideas about gratitude, guilt, power and disobedience feel fresh and contemporary. Nashman articulates the knot inside Kafka with such intensity that it becomes a visual thing. As the letter is danced, it grows into more than the struggle of one man and his father; speaking of himself as we, his story begins to illuminate our own private battles with the things that twist us.

His father never received these words, and Kafka's dying wish (thankfully ignored) was that all his writings were burnt unread; this letter tries to show how a person could grow to have so little idea of their own worth, and how such a cage might be built. Perhaps among the blackbird feathers there are also those of a coal-dusted canary; singing to warn us of the things that can destroy a man.

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