A Country Doctor

Tue 13th – Sat 17th November 2012

reviews

Thomas Stell

at 03:29 on 14th Nov 2012

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As well as his famous short stories (In the Penal Colony and Metamorphosis, among others) and his unfinished novels, Franz Kafka wrote several very short prose pieces, some only a few sentences long, many of which were published in the collections Contemplation (1913) and A Country Doctor: Short Prose for my Father (1920). They are extraordinary, having the enigmatic, sinister, and dream-like qualities of all Kafka’s work.

A Country Doctor, which gives its title to its collection, is one of these, and like many, it depends for its effect partly on its brevity (it is one of the longer ones, but still only seven pages in my edition), the way a logically impossible scenario is explained quite matter-of-factly, with hardly any dialogue or elaborate physical description. Henry Little’s adaptation for the stage, at three quarters of an hour in length, is an extreme instance of labouring the point.

The story is about a doctor, alone in a remote part of the world, who one night must go and see to an injured farmhand. He finds he has no horse to take him, and is beginning to despair, when one miraculously appears, with its own groom. The doctor sets off, leaving the groom behind despite it being clear the latter will make unwanted advances on the maidservant. Nor do the oddities stop when he gets to the farmhouse of his patient. The family there are distinctly threatening, and maid and groom seem to turn up again as members of this family.

Where Kafka plainly records an element of the story – say, the doctor leaving Rose, the maid, knowing the groom will try to have his way with her, stating it as a fact and leaving the fact of the event and its strangeness to work on the reader and convey the doctor’s sense of powerlessness to us, Little feels the need to spell everything out. Scenes are lengthened and dialogue added, removing Kafka’s simplicity but putting nothing of worth in its place. This also does violence to the speed of the piece. Dream-like it may be meant to be, but the long monologues of the doctor before he goes to see his patient seem only incorrect, given that the man ought to be at least trying to hurry. The whole piece is at this very slow tempo – there is no variation in speed even when the doctor breaks off from the action to address the audience. Little’s technical skill as a writer is not up to supporting such slow movement with the sort of mesmerising lines that might just have saved it, and the result is only dullness.

A word then on the writing – the following clangers are entirely representative. We have clichés (“silence from the mist”), misapplied adjectives (“this copious night”) and adverbs (“a mission swift complete”), and inaccurate shots at the daringly poetic (“the storm unfolds the earth”). The family’s chant “see the doctor, see the doctor, see the doctor...” sounds like something out of a deleted scene from Doctor Who.

Nothing better can be said about the actors. The title role, in the Kafka also the narrator, is played by Alex Wilson. We ought to be able to sympathise with his character, as we can in the Kafka, but Wilson’s excessively light voice, camp intonation, and prissy manner put paid to that. Charles Davies who plays the groom must be some sort of grimacing specialist. It is the only expression he does, but he isn’t even very good at it. The horses are represented by shadow puppetry. That is if I may use the name of an ancient and noble dramatic tradition of the Far East to refer to what consists solely of holding a torch up to a cut out paper horse head.

Before seeing this play I had some misgivings about its basis. This Kafka story was always going to be hard to put on stage. It cannot simply be made longer by the addition of extra dialogue. I was disappointed to find the show not only just as conceptually flawed as I had feared, but to find it executed incompetently.

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Ollie Nicholls

at 08:53 on 14th Nov 2012

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Kafka’s 'A Country Doctor', as adapted by Henry Little, is a difficult play. It is a deeply surreal work that relies on confident delivery from its cast and assured control from its director. And, while this production showed many promising aspects, I felt that more work could have made a chilling drama out of a play that became a little monotonous.

Lots of the central ideas were highly original; the ghostly vision of the play was well realised through effective design choices. Creating the horses through shadows worked well; it gave the animals an ethereal quality that established the tone for the events to follow. Props were also employed in an interesting and diverse manner: boxes in the centre of the stage were made to represent a bed, a stable and a horse and trap. The harness lowered from the ceiling was also an innovative idea (although the ungainly wires attached to it sometimes seemed to be a hindrance to cast members).

The cast gave a competent, solid ensemble performance. Choral speaking was particularly well-managed – so often this can descend into mumbling, but the words were intelligible and whispered with fierce intensity. Fresher Alex Wilson brought a fresh-faced enthusiasm to the role of the eponymous Doctor and in his quieter moments really mastered some of the tricky language. However, I would have liked him to have a better command of his body and of the stage. There were also good moments from other cast members: Alice Caulfield was suitably wide-eyed as the victimised Rose and Charles Davies was menacing in both of his performances. All of them, however, should work on their physicality on stage: with minimalist theatre, and especially when the cast is multi-roling, physical differentiation and control on stage is crucial.

Other problems arose with cues; while some of this can be attributed to first-night nerves, it also meant a general lack of pace. Lastly, I did feel that some of the lines were lost or thrown away – one of the conversations between the boy and the doctor was almost unintelligible, which made important plot points difficult to understand.

There were real moments of innovation in the play and times when the cast showed real promise. However, much of the action seemed to take place on one level – the director needed to elicit performances from her cast and craft the drama in a way that made key moments more marked. Instead, much of what occurred seemed vaguely monotonous, and it became difficult to distinguish the salient plot points in the drama.

'A Country Doctor' is about life, death and duty. The themes are grand, the subject matter rich and, indeed, a little tightening from the cast and crew would have made this a fine performance indeed.

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