Review: The Cost of Living, National Theatre Wales

A picture of Kel Matsena, one of the cast members of Joseph K and the Cost of Living, crouching under a harsh white light

Marine Furet reviews The Cost of Living, a new production from National Theatre Wales currently at the Swansea Grand Theatre

The Cost of Living, National Theatre Wales’ ambitious new venture, is a three part experience including a discussion titled Counting the Cost of Living, a play, Joseph K and the Cost of Living, and a music performance, F**k the Cost of Living

The centrepiece, Joseph K and the Cost of Living, directed by Lorne Campbell, Kel Matsena and Anthony Matsena, is a stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, first released in 1925. On paper, the novel’s absurdist portrayal of a man’s alienating experience of being arrested, then released for a crime that is never defined, is an enlightened choice to adapt to the stage. The play’s themes – authoritarian states, the administrative burden laid on the powerless, permanent surveillance – all feel poignantly topical and urgent. The play’s set, designed by Cai Dyfan, is tasteful and sparse, the cast appropriately dressed in shades of bureaucratic greige. Sadly, the script is underwritten and superficial, and the production can only remedy some of its gaps. 

Dividing Joseph K into four characters from different backgrounds (a white man, a white woman, a trans woman and a black man), the play’s central conceit, ends up leaving little room to explore the protagonists. Jo K’s successive embodiments are only presented in the light of their oppression and quickly shooed off, despite valiant efforts from actors Joni Ayton-Kent, Gruffudd Glyn, Kel Matsena and Lucy Ellinson.

The play tries to speak to so many aspects of intersectional identities and experiences of oppression that it leaves all of them unexamined in favour of a series of strident vignettes

There is a lack of subtlety to the protagonists’ experience with the mechanisms of the state and quite a few scenes – the encounter with a social media guru, Titorelli, set on helping K improve his image, or K’s visit to a church which ends with a litany of exclamations (‘Don’t preach me a sermon!’) – ring hollow and cliched. In an increasingly multi-religious society, the church scene is perhaps one of the play’s most dated aspects given the Catholic Church’s loss of relevance as an all-powerful symbol of oppression, but this is a matter for another article. K’s trial, staged as a television show, is trope-ridden and, frankly, uninspired, maybe because using a television show as a universal metaphor for [insert word here] is also starting to feel dated. 

In short, the play tries to do so much, and speak to so many aspects of intersectional identities and experiences of oppression that it leaves all of them unexamined in favour of a series of strident vignettes. The script’s ham-fisted insistence on rehashing already well-trodden avenues (Post truth! Surveillance!) further crowds out any opportunity for the characters to become more than generic stand-ins for a series of topical issues.

Those frustrating aspects of the play risk overshadowing even its highlights – of which there are quite a few. The directors seem to have had a lot of fun imagining K’s corrupt lawyer, played by Ioan Hefin, who spends the play reclining on a sofa while covered in a variety of patterned fabrics and is reminiscent of a character from Beckett. Lenny, his sleazy assistant, is suitably creepy. Kel Matsena’s performance as Joseph is impressive, emotionally and physically intense and gripping. Sara Beer’s portrayal of a morally ambivalent also defended by K’s lawyer is another memorable moment. There are also superbly choreographed, though sadly episodic, scenes, and the performance is full of creative ideas and props, like mics hanging from the ceiling, for the actors to turn to advantage. 

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

Joseph K or the Cost of Living is only a part of the evening. The pre-show discussion, Counting the Cost of Living, puts members of the audience in discussion with various high ranking members of the third sector, a new one every night, led by Shirish Kulkarni. On the night I attend, the ‘hot seats’ are occupied by Rhian Davies, chair of Disability Wales, and a man and a woman from Ethnic Minorities Youth Support Team.

The discussion opens with a surprisingly revealing exercise, where all audience members are invited to ask each other about the crossroads they are currently experiencing in their life. We are prompted to listen to each other without interruption, question, or judgement, before witnessing a conversation about the impact of the current crisis.

Labelled ‘keynote listening’, the process quickly turns into a small-scale exercise in revolutionary thinking, ending as one young man suggests we need to imagine a society without money. Members of the D/deaf community in attendance share their anger and recount harrowing experiences of feeling left behind by Governments.

After the discussion, we are shown my name is joseph k, a short film directed by Mathilde Lopez, which is an impressionistic but grounded exploration of the lives of four people of colour and their experiences with the police. Those stories – situated yet universally moving all at once, short and emotionally in tune with their subject matter – were everything I would have liked the play to be. We then share a meal in the cosy atmosphere of Swansea’s Grand Theatre cafe, before being ushered to the next stage of the night.

The third part of the evening is an energetic performance led by Welsh artist Minas (its central theme, protest, is in keeping with the rest of the night), joined by Ayoub Boukhalfa and HMS Morris.

Ambitious and uneven, the three parts that make up The Cost of Living end up being a portrait of theatremakers’ complex and at times uneasy attempts at devising a new role for theatre – one where the line between audience and performers, directors and activists is obviously shifting and hasn’t yet come to a comfortable resting point. Perhaps it never should, as theatre professionals continue to voice their discontent with the industry’s shortcomings. In the meantime, as audiences, we can do our best to continue supporting theatre and the people who make it, warts and all.

The entire evening has clearly been carefully, thoughtfully composed and orchestrated. At the start of Counting the Cost of Living, all participants describe themselves out loud to the audience for the purpose of accessibility. The same level of attention to access is carried off throughout the evening: all three parts of The Cost of Living are BSL-interpreted. Everyone, from the creative team to the performers, is clearly having a whale of a time, but as a member of the audience, the production left me feeling less enthused. We walk around the venue, getting a bit lost in search of the bar, and there is something really charming about it all. Unfortunately, even the abundance of good will that clearly guided the creative process cannot make up for poor writing.

The Cost of Living is performed at the Swansea Grand Theatre until Saturday 25 March

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Marine Furet is the IWA's Communications, Media and Engagement Officer.

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