My father myself: Kafka’s horror, Nashman’s masterpiece

Alon Nashman is Kafka, father and son. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy www.alonnashman.com

Alon Nashman is Kafka, father and son. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy http://www.alonnashman.com

When a theatre production takes on a classic work of prose and gives it new life, the audience is fortunate. When this new life is articulated with such fire and wisdom that the original words of the master are seared with new energy, the audience is privileged. When all of this comes together under the supreme talents of a performer, such as Alon Nashman, the experience is almost completely overwhelming.

This is what you get with Kafka and Son, an astonishing foray into the problematic relationship Czech writer Franz Kafka had with his father Hermann, a relationship splayed and explored ruthlessly in Letter to my Father, written by Franz in 1919, never delivered to his father, but published in 1966, after both men were dead. It’s an intimate, horrifying and at times hilariously biting extrapolation on a father-son relationship fuelled by narcissism, fear, sarcasm and one-upmanship, on the part of the father, and exacerbated by the son’s low self esteem, physical puniness and inability to fight back. It’s a horror story told with a fierce sense of intimacy that is both riveting and disturbing.

Nashman is an unbelievably fine performer, and it is a true and unforgettable privilege to be able to see this performer in South Africa. Bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to Kafka, he is, at once, father and son, as he offers dialogue that is often difficult to internalise, it is so destructive. Complemented with a rough and potent set comprising feathers and rusty cages, the work has a harsh melodiousness of its own, and the shrill weeping plaint of the klezmer-evocative clarinet melds in to the choreographic repertoire of the piece where nothing – from cruelty during childhood to the boring horror of disdain for Jewish tradition – escapes the son’s critical loupe toward his father’s behaviour.

It’s a paean that authenticates the hollow sadness of anyone who has experienced the lead ball of parental emotional abuse, which intertwines the complication of marriage and independence; it is also a deeply sophisticated ode to the potency of Kafka himself. Evoking Alan Parker’s 1984 film Birdy, which engages with post Vietnam War horror, as it teases open the resonance of language articulated by Kafka in the teen years of the twentieth century, a scary precursor to the texture of Holocaust language, the work presents an eye at a keyhole into the kind of challenges that the real, individual, private Kafka faced, and consequently a level of focus into the work.

Kafka and Son is a defining, uncompromising piece of brilliance.

  • Kafka and Son is written by Mark Cassidy and Alon Nashman, adapted for stage from Franz Kafka’s Letter to my Father. It is directed by Mark Cassidy, features design by Carmellia Koo and Marysia Bucolc (costume and set) and Andrea Lundy (lighting) and is performed by Alon Nashman, as part of the Wits 969 Festival in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein. It performs again on Tuesday July 21 at 13:15. Visit webtickets.co.za
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