In the Shadow of Kafka, a series of documentaries and drama on BBC Radio 3 from Sunday 10 May–Saturday 16 May, will examine one of the most elusive and intriguing figures in 20th century literature, Franz Kafka.
100 years since the publication of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the Czech writer remains one of the most influential writers of the last century, inspiring generations with his novels and short stories, themes of alienation, authority and mythical transformation. In the Shadow of Kafka will re-examine this legacy, exploring Kafka’s life and work through the lens of contemporary writers and dramatists including Margaret Atwood, April de Angelis, Hanif Kureishi, Karen Leeder, Mark Ravenhill and Jeff Young in a week of special broadcasts.
Sunday Feature: Prophet of Prague (Sunday 10 May, 6.45-7.30pm) examines how Kafka’s life and ideas were shaped by his native city at a critical point in European history. Born and bred in Prague, since he died in 1924 the writer has cut an ambivalent figure on the city’s cultural landscape. Today an icon of the city, his books were once banned and considered a threat to the communist regime. In this special Sunday Feature, Misha Glenny, who worked as a journalist in Prague in the 1980s, returns to the city which some argue is ever-present in all of Kafka’s fiction. He visits the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked as an insurance lawyer for 14 years and examines the global influences on Kafka’s ideas: the esoteric philosophies circulating in Prague’s cafes, the politics and paranoia of an empire in decline and the rising tide of Czech nationalism which threatened to engulf the Jewish old town where the Kafkas lived.
Drama on 3 (Sunday 10 May, 10-11.30pm) presents a new adaptation of Kafka’s Der Prozess, traditionally translated as The Trial, 90 years since its posthumous publication. Dramatised and updated for a contemporary setting by award-winning playwright Mark Ravenhill, The Process reimagines Kafka’s nightmarish story of one man’s search for answers. Played by actor Sam Troughton, the tale’s protagonist Josef K becomes Joseph Kay in Ravenhill’s new adaption of Kafka’s unnerving masterpiece.
Playwright Mark Ravenhill says: “Kafka’s Der Prozess is one of the defining texts of the twentieth century. So it was an exciting challenge to re-imagine it for our times. I found that Kafka’s story – of an individual struggling with a system in which responsibility, judgement and meaning are endlessly deferred – sat remarkably and yet uncomfortably well in a contemporary setting. Reading through my script before I delivered it, I couldn’t be sure if I’d written a comedy or a tragedy. I would guess that’s what Kafka wanted.”
Continuing the week of special broadcasts, on Jazz on 3 (Monday 11 May, 11pm-12.30am) British band Blue-Eyed Hawk perform in session, premiering new music inspired by Kafka’s short stories. A band which explores the relationship between improvisation and literature, Blue-Eyed Hawk features acclaimed young trumpeter Laura Jurd, vocalist Lauren Kinsella, guitarist Alex Roth and drummer Cory Dick.
Throughout the week, The Essay (Monday 11 May – Friday 15 May, 10.45-11pm) presents five writers’ interpretations of Kafka – comedian, messenger, body phobic and unique writer of imagination – examining the breadth of Kafka’s thinking, his world and how his writing still resonates for them as contemporary writers. Multi award-winning novelist, poet, essayist and environmental campaigner Margaret Atwood (Monday 11 May, 10.45-11pm) revisits an essay she wrote on Kafka when she was nineteen years old and discusses three trips she has made to Prague in her lifetime and the three different versions of him she found there. Playwright, film maker and novelist Hanif Kureishi (Tuesday 12 May, 10.45-11pm) explores Kafka’s personal and artistic fascination with the body and food, examining how Kafka, a lifelong vegetarian, created characters whose bodies are used as weapons to attack others and ultimately destroy themselves. Karen Leeder (Wednesday 13 May, 10.45-11pm), a prize-winning translator and Professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford, explores Kafka’s modern use of messengers and messages and the significance and interpretation of communication in his work. Discussing how the process is often the point of the story in Kafka’s works, Leeder argues that it is not so much the meaning as the very act of purveying a message itself that is Kafka’s aim. Award-winning playwright for stage, radio, opera and film, April de Angelis (Thursday 14 May, 10.45-11pm), dissects the dark comedy of The Castle, arguing the case for Kafka as both humourist and feminist. Unpicking the comic tropes of the novel, de Angelis argues a case for Kafka the feminist, as she charts his skilful dismantling – at times comic, at times menacing – of the conventional power structures in the novel. In the final Essay of the series, playwright for radio, stage and screen, Jeff Young (Friday 15 May, 10.45-11pm), considers the unusually powerful impact of Kafka’s language. Jeff, who first encountered The Metamorphosis as a teenager in the 1970s, has collected and compared every new edition of the work. His essay looks at the nature of translation, how it sits between the writer and the words and how the space between the two allows the reader to discover his or her own version of the author and his intention.
The Metamorphosis is reimagined for present day in Between The Ears: Mr Rainbow (Saturday 16 May, 9.30-10pm) which follows the story of Gregory, who, when a physical condition leaves him incapacitated, seeks advice from a series of self-help experts on the internet. Written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, the drama documentary features actor Tom Bennett as 31 year-old Gregory hearing the real voices of a life coach, a GP, a sound healer, a dating coach and a specialist on workplace happiness.
Radio 3’s Words and Music presents a special Kafka-related programme on Sunday 10 May (5.30-6.45pm).
BBC Radio 4 also explores the life and work of Kafka in May. A new two-part dramatisation of his mind-warping novel The Castle (Sunday 10 May and Sunday 17 May, 3-4pm), set in a bureaucratic wonderland, tells the story of hapless land-surveyor known only as K who answers a summons to work at the mysterious Castle, only to find himself drawn into a labyrinth of terror and absurdity. David Baddiel presents an Archive on 4 which explores The Entomology of Gregor Samsa (Saturday 9 May, 8-9pm) and on Open Book (Sunday 26 April, 4pm and Thursday 30 April, 3.30pm) playwright Mark Ravenhill joins Mariella Frostrup to discuss his new adaptation of Kafka’s Der Prozess which broadcasts on Radio 3 on Sunday 10 May, and offers his guide to Kafka’s work.