Josephine K and the Algorithms: Kafka gets a modern update

In Stacey Gregg’s new play, the forces that push us around are creatures of our own creation

Jospehine is casually undermined by patriarchal systems and  experiences daily intrusions palmed off as innocuous assistance

Jospehine is casually undermined by patriarchal systems and experiences daily intrusions palmed off as innocuous assistance

 

Peacock Theatre, Dublin

***

Somebody must have been spreading #fakenews about Josephine K, for without having done anything wrong, she was arrested one fine morning.

Given the stack of Amazon packages in her home, sent by request and forceful recommendation, Josephine must be cultured enough to find her darkly absurd situation warily familiar. Frankly, the whole thing is Black Mirror-esque.

Stacey Gregg’s new play for the Abbey, a loose adaptation of The Trial, understands that modern living already resembles a loose adaptation of Kafka. We move through clouds of data and digital transfers, pushed around by invisible forces we barely understand. If private companies can access your search history, profile of likes and even current location, how much more invasive is it for Orla Fitzgerald’s bewildered everywoman to be summoned to a mysterious court to account for herself?

Director Caitríona McLaughlin introduces this Abbey production with a Kafkaesque disorientation: you enter the Peacock through backstage corridors, to find its auditorium reconfigured in Kate Moylan’s design into a small square stage, partly bisected with glass panels, and surrounded by audience – the implied jury. Yet the slyest observation in Gregg’s play is just how familiar Josephine’s torment feels: casually undermined by patriarchal systems, her behaviour scrutinised by lock-step peers, experiencing daily intrusions palmed off as innocuous assistance.

Nowhere is that better signalled than in the casting of Carl Kennedy, deliciously deadpan, as Fitzgerald’s series of blandly benign interlocutors. From the polite surveillance officer who appears in her apartment to arrest her (“I’ll just be here, okäy?”) and her co-worker Gavin, to a radical figure from her past called Caleb, and, at a later stage, even a higher power, all are useless but faintly apologetic – as though even God had undergone customer service training.

There’s little about this brief performance that feels compellingly theatrical, though. Fitzgerald and Kennedy weave in and out of Gregg’s fittingly suspicious third-person narrative, assisted by Kennedy’s playfully responsive sound design, both of which suggest the fluid immersion of a radio play. But the set works against them, finally too cumbersome to assist the brisk rhythm of performance, limiting much of the audience to awkward sightlines.

The ideas within it, though, are still enjoyably limber: distracted by memes and hashtags, the followers of Josephine’s trial apply their mob justice elsewhere, while she interrogates her life more thoroughly than any magistrate. “Doesn’t everyone present another face to the world?” Fitzgerald’s Josephine protests when her carefully cultivated public image is contradicted by private actions. It’s a wry point: under unflinching digital scrutiny, everyone is guilty as sin.

Runs until October 21