Dark humour for dark times

17 August 2019

Humphrey Bower, The Apparatus ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 15 August ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

The Apparatus brings the stories of Franz Kafka to the stage and makes them viscerally real and inescapably present.

An evening in three parts, the stories – “Before the Law”, “The Burrow” and “In the Penal Colony” – are performed by writer/director Humphrey Bower and operator/assistant director Timothy Green. With a healthy dose of dark humour and wit, and a keen critical eye upon the tales Australians like to tell about their national identity, Bower’s reinterpretation of Kafka’s short stories fiercely interrogates and examines the solipsism of a nation, the anxieties of masculinity and the dichotomies of self and other.

Without going into too much detail about the narratives of the stories themselves, each one typifies the bureaucratic, surreal, darkly comic wit of Kafka’s writing, which reflects the historical context in which they were written. In this retelling, however, these fables appear as very contemporary, relevant and deeply disturbing in their truth-telling.

The set and costume design are quite bare and prison-like, as though deliberately trying to make the audience uncomfortable. Light is followed by darkness, broken only by the achingly bright gesticulating of a head torch strapped to Bower’s forehead as his character revels in the power of creating one’s own underground fortress, away from the rest of the world. This is followed by the seemingly harmless image of a garden chair hanging over the performers’ heads, which is then menacingly flipped over as a stand-in for machinery that produces unspeakable pain, the apparatus of the show’s title.

Bower and Green play beautifully off one another. Bower’s  narrating characters vary between villainous larrikin, anxiety-ridden burrower, and refuge-seeking villager, whilst Green’s supporting performance is perfectly shadowy, his face and movements continuously and subtly reacting to the situations unfolding before him.

In the third story, Green’s character is forced to take a central, active role in a horrifying situation (portrayed with devastatingly accurate good old Aussie humour). It’s a unifying moment that brings to light the decisions we make every day to gloss over, partake in, or bear witness to the physical and mental torture that our government commits every day in the name of our safety and security. This is echoed in the jarring, then uncomfortably self-conscious laughter of some audience members during the performance, a symbol of discomfort and levity in the face of benign evil.

The Apparatus runs until August 31.

Pictured top are Humphrey Bower and Timothy Green in “The Apparatus”.

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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