Mark Blayney shines a light on National Theatre Wales’ latest production, Joseph K and the Cost of Living, the drama which lies at the the centre of a three-part experience in Swansea Grand Theatre which claims to take a two-fingered swipe at the cost of living crisis.
As an exercise in alienation, Joseph K and the Cost of Living is superb. Intense lights are thrown into the audience. A partly-raised curtain at the beginning subverts our expectations of what a proscenium arch play looks like, with prisoners scurrying beneath, scrubbing the floor and glaring at us. A ‘jury’, formed of audience members, sits behind the action throughout, watching us. Lorne Campbell’s direction is confident and deft and the cast are, without exception, superb. There are some beautifully elegant moments of choreography, with Joseph K surrounded by torch beams that become blades, or whips, or bars. Strobes are used to great effect to simulate a beating. Unsettling background music is compounded by phones ringing, sending some audience members groping nervously for their bags. Sound designer Alex Comana is visible throughout in one of the Grand’s boxes, having a little dance at one point. The set by Cai Dyfan is terrific – including a functional upper-floor window with a pot plant which becomes an ominous spyhole for torture.
At its core, the play is a fine commentary on how we willingly surrender personal data to tech companies. ‘You give us data, and data is information, and information is power. You carry your own surveillance around in your pocket.’ Emily White’s adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial is nimble and has considerable contemporary resonance, its lines ‘everyone must have their say and truth is a relative concept’ echoing round the building on the very day Boris Johnson swears on the Bible that he did not lie to Parliament. By casting four actors as ‘Jo K’, of different races and genders, we feel effectively that any one of us could be the prisoner who has been arrested for an unspecified crime.
The problem with the production is that for a play called ‘Joseph K and the cost of living,’ it doesn’t have anything much to say about the cost of living. Yes, there are amusing references – the end of the working day is treated as a party; all the lights go out at key moments and everyone rallies round to put some credit in the meter; some placards are waved about. No solutions are suggested for the cost of living crisis, nor even questions asked. Did we learn anything new? No. Is it a good play? Yes.
So: National Theatre Wales’ biggest problem is its marketing. A look at the programme tells us that this is ‘trying to make a new thing in a new way’ and ‘a piece of theatre that speaks directly and powerfully to the world around us.’ Whilst the desire to tackle the biggest of issues in as inclusive a way as possible is admirable, it’s setting up expectations that almost inevitably cannot be met. Don’t tell us it’s a play about the cost of living when it isn’t. Instead, under-promise and you’re more likely to over-deliver.
Joseph K and the cost of living is part of a wider programme: a limited-attendance shared meal pre-show where members of the public are asked what their concerns are by people in power; there’s a film, ‘My name is Joseph K’, with contemporary real-life stories; and after the play there is music – ‘F**k the cost of living’. In trying to touch all bases, there’s a loss of focus. I want to say – guys – do what you’re good at, which is making terrific drama. Don’t try to be everything to all people. This is a fine piece of theatre. It just isn’t about what it’s supposed to be about.
Joseph K and the Cost of Living runs at Swansea Grand Theatre until Saturday 25th March, ticket information is available here.
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