by Sam King | June 4, 2023
“You should be hearing this in your left ear.”
“You should be hearing this in your right ear.”
I was. The voice of Sonya Luchanskaya delivered these words through the respective drivers on my personal headphone set, which were waiting at my seat as I walked into the Michael Pilch Theatre. This was less of a silent disco and more of a full theatrical immersion. It was a canny decision by the production to encourage audience members to invest in the story through the medium of personal headsets that made everything feel more intimate. They allowed normally muffled noises to reverberate around. At times it was akin to ASMR, but fundamentally elevated the tone and stakes in the play. The story unravels as a tightly wound domestic drama, for which the sound system was perfect.
Giving every audience member their own headphones might have come off as gimmicky, but here, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. At certain moments the production used a panning effect, the noise bouncing from one headphone to another, which injected a dynamism into the family sphere – each instance felt considered and well-paced. They never overstretched.
Jo Rich, Millie Deere and Juliette Imbert, playing the father, mother and sister respectively, all handled their roles with poise, portraying the idiosyncrasies of family life and the ultimate crescendo into devastation. Joe Rachman however, playing the brother who transforms into some kind of ‘monstrous vermin’, was by far the standout performance.
Downstage, which accommodated the family dining table (helpfully propping up a microphone which picked up teacups clinking or milk being poured), was divided from upstage by two large white sheets hanging from the ceiling. Behind them, lay a large single bed where Rachman spent most of his time. Imagine a man lying on the floor with his left leg tucked into his chest, his right arm stretched behind his back and his entire body held in a contorted muscular tension. Now imagine that man doing it for forty minutes with the occasional movement up and downstage. Understandably, sweat dripped down from Rachman, who was wearing nothing except white underpants as he slithered around the stage; he displayed a level of focus, intensity and commitment not altogether commonplace from an actor, regardless of their level.
Kafka’s short story is interested in the family unit, survival in a capitalist economy and the way power dissipates through gender. The production did a good job of exploring these issues. Rich pulled off a formidable performance as the withered old patriarch Mr Samsa, which occasionally struck comedic notes. As the humanity of their son Gregor Samsa fades, their daughter becomes an alternative focus of attention. The play did well to capture the merciless quality of a travelling salesman’s life – the clue that Gregor has metamorphized into some creature presents itself when he fails to get up at four o’clock in the morning, in time for work. The character’s body is rebelling, lashing out.
Yet, engaging as these thematic questions were, they emerged as largely secondary to the sheer immersive quality of the play – which was the best I have seen in Oxford. One function of the headphones was to provide the audience with an insight into Gregor’s internal monologue. Without them, jarring directorial decisions might have been made. They opened up the world to the audience in a way that productions are rarely able to accomplish.
When all the actors came on to take their bow (including Hal Galvin as the Clerk and Susie Weidmann as the lodger), Rachman stayed in the bed upstage curled under the sheets. He didn’t appear to take his applause. After a few minutes, as chatter was starting to build and the rest of the cast had scuttled off to the green room, he eventually appeared. He didn’t walk to the front of the stage. He didn’t take a bow. He just strolled off to the side and, as it sparked an impromptu round of applause, smiled.
Review by Sam King.