Review: Das Schloss

Das Schloss, adapted from Kafka’s novel, at the Kammerspiele of the Deutsches Theater
Director: Nurkan Erpulat
Design: Magda Willi
Music: Tobias Schwencke, Florian Tippe
Dramaturgy: Jens Hillje

Photo: Arno Declair

As the audience files in, the actors already sit far upstage in front of a reflective sheet of perspex, dressed casually in contemporary clothes and talking inaudibly to each other around a table. After a while, once everyone was seated and wondering when it was going to start, one of the cast announces that they’re just waiting for another actor. “Has the play started?” says the woman next to me to her companion.

Usually, this kind of über-meta-super-naturalism is a pet hate of mine (I know I’m in a theatre, just calm down). But Das Schloss is not a play, it’s a novel, and more than that, a famously unfinished one, so putting it on stage is going to take a bit of theatrical justification. The justification takes on a more obvious shape once the missing actor appears: they begin by reading from a copy of the book itself. Or should I say attempt to begin – one of the group is plagued with doubts regarding the staging of the reading, it takes around 8 tries before he allows actress Katharina Matz to get past the title (at one point observing that the audience obviously knows the title, after all they had to buy tickets; this got a grudging laugh, possibly I was in the company of a few other pet-haters).

As the reading gets going, the rest of the cast share the narration of the well-known opening lines between them, sometimes competing for the better rendition for a line, at other times talking over each other, while the chronic interrupter watches grumpily. At the mention of the protagonist K., Mr. Grumpy is bullied into participation, and from here on out he only plays the lead role, the performance now informed by his turbulent relationship with the other actors. This tells us something about director Nurkan Erpulat’s interpretation of Kafka’s infinitely interpretable work; the protagonist is on his own in this strange world of the Castle, battling for inclusion, to be let in on the secret.

The preamble being thus justified, the story unravelled and the actors took on multiple roles as they left the straightforward reading of the book behind. Just don’t ask me to explain the presence of a children’s choir singing unaccompanied versions of The Doors songs between scenes…

Some beautiful moments came from Willi’s mirrored design, at times up to four perspex sheets dissecting the stage from left to right and forming reflections of reflections that created a dreamy sensation of déjà-vu. Lit from behind, the sheets could also become transparent, and so we could see the cast look on stony-faced as K. and Frieda made love for the first time, a moment that was surprisingly as funny as it was uncomfortable. The disadvantage of the glass screens was that when a scene was staged between two of them, the sound had to be miked and the action became very distanced – I felt as though looking through the glass my eyes began to glaze over too.

The adaptation chose the relationship between K. and Frieda as its focus, boiling it down to a love story which might have made the twisting, labyrinthine plot of the original a little more accessible – but then labyrinths are not really designed to be accessible, are they. This was my real issue with the production, not the über-meta-beginning, as I had expected it to be, or end, which returned to reading from the book and had me holding my breath waiting for that final line, knowing that any second we were all inevitably going to be left hanging mid-sentence forever.

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