for the frozen sea


written by emma spurgin hussey

directed by christopher william hill

designed by cordelia chisholm

music by dominic sewell

lCopyright David HunterEmma Spurgin Hussey, Andy Crabb and Rory Wilton AXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David Hunter

AXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David Hunter


'Franz Kafka in his underpants'


‘ ...a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ FRANZ KAFKA


Axe for the Frozen Sea toured in 2002 and again in 2003 and has proven to be one of Bedlam's most popular productions to date. Inspired by the life and work of Czech writer Franz Kafka, Emma Spurgin Hussey wrote what many regard as one of the best plays to be seen in the south west for many years.


The play is loosely based on an overnight train journey Franz Kafka took between Prague and Berlin, where he intended to propose to his sweetheart Felice Bauer. Unfortunately Kafka finds himself locked in a carriage with two people who seem to know more about him than he knows about himself. His mysterious fellow travellers take him on a shocking and hilarious journey through his past, present and future; immersing him in the world of his own fiction, interrogating him and presenting him with some painful home truths. Ultimately Kafka is forced to choose between a life of writing or a life of marriage and normality. (Kafka fans will know which direction he decided to choose.) As Kafka makes his choice, the awful truth about his interrogators' identity becomes clear.


Rory Wilton - Co-Artistic Director

AXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David HunterAXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David HunterAXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David HunterAXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David Hunter


Press Release for 2003 Tour

Axe for the Frozen Sea is a play about the enigmatic Czech writer Franz Kafka, written in his own darkly comic style. A compact performance, bursting with energy, the production thunders ahead as unstoppably as the Prague to Berlin overnight train it takes as its setting. On board is Franz Kafka, as you've never seen him before. Two mysterious strangers tie him up with words, conjure ghosts, and ultimately offer him the axe to hack through the frozen sea within him.

For those unfamiliar with the quirky and elusive writer of The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis, this taut, visceral and fast-paced show is a superb introduction to Kafka and his work. If you`re already a fan, you`ll find in this stunning play a refreshing look at the writer and the strange world in which he wrote.

‘The play was really well received when it first went out,’ says Bedlam’s artistic co-director Rory Wilton. ‘We had a lot of requests from audience members for a re-tour, as we kept hearing that people wanted to see the show again. Other people, who missed it first time, told us how sorry they were, as they kept hearing how good it was. So we decided to re-tour. But we didn’t want to take it out in exactly the same way – we wanted to challenge ourselves and our audiences a bit more.’

Rory goes on to explain, ‘The show has undergone a major makeover since its last outing in the spring of last year. Writer Emma Spurgin Hussey has edited and largely re-written the script, making the piece sharper, darker and edgier. The set is re-designed by designer Cordelia Chisholm, who has created a claustrophobic world where little is ever as it seems. The music has been extensively re-mastered, and a whole new soundtrack has been created by composer Dominic Sewell, whose previous work includes the orchestration of the TV programme Walking with Beasts. And we have a different actor, Andrew Crabb, playing Kafka, which brings a whole new dynamic to the play.’

‘The play is completely re-directed by Christopher William Hill, better known as Cornwall’s most interesting young playwright. Christopher’s work is well-respected nationally, and he has recently been on attachment at The National Theatre, and writer in residence at Plymouth Theatre Royal. His play Killing Maestros, featuring actors Bill Nighy and Henry Goodman, was recently aired on Radio 4. Christopher is currently under commission to, among others, Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre in Scarborough. He is fast gaining a reputation as a "master of black comedy", which makes him an ideal director for Axe for the Frozen Sea,’ Rory tells us.

If you’ve never seen the show before, prepare yourself for an unnerving, comic and ultimately moving theatrical rollercoaster ride of a journey. If you were lucky enough to catch the first tour, come and experience the play’s metamorphosis into a still more extraordinary piece of theatre. Not to be missed.

The Cornishman: 'Bedlam's best yet ... engrossing. A high-speed production with searing patterns and passages of movement, and compelling performances'.


Audience Comments:

'Superb performance, a really enjoyable evening, great acting and a great story. As good as always.'

'Extremely entertaining!'

'Terrific pace - great changes in mood - both funny and sad.'

'FAB! Very fast and edgy! Great story line - BRILL!'

'Very good - thoroughly enjoyed it!!!'

'Absolutely hilarious and entertaining throughout!'

'Really impressive - very enjoyable and well choreographed.'

'Stupidly good. The best play I've seen in a VERY long time - WOW!'

'Excellent play, unusual, witty, thought provoking. Writing and performances both impressive.'

'A stunning, riveting, mesmerising performance of an extraordinary play.'

'Wonderful play - imaginative, gripping and stimulating!

'Witty and profound.'

Two Bowlers

AXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David HunterAXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David HunterAXE FOR THE FROZEN SEA - 2003 photo David HunterCopyright David Hunter

Poster design by Rory Wilton 2005




 Franz Kafka - Andrew Crabb

 The Woman - Emma Spurgin Hussey

 The Man - Rory Wilton


 Stage Manager - Ellen Moule



ABOUT FRANZ KAFKA - Emma Spurgin Hussey

Franz Kafka

Mention Franz Kafka to people and you come up with a variety of responses. Some people have never heard of him at all. Others remember him as the sad-faced bat-eared boy on the back of the Penguins – ‘He didn’t get on with his dad. And didn’t he write some miserable books? One was about a trial, I think. And a man turning into an insect?’ Fewer people have read lots of Kafka, and they all have strong opinions about the man and his work.

There’s an old story about Prague, the city where Kafka was born and lived almost all his life. A man from Prague meets several visitors and asks them how long they’ll be staying in the city. ‘Oh, just for the weekend,’ says one. ‘Then you will certainly get to know Prague,’ says the man. Another says, ‘I’m here for a fortnight’. The man says, ‘You’ll get to know something of our city‘. A third says, ‘I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life‘. ‘Ah,’ says the man, ‘then you will never know Prague.’

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I begin to doubt that the story was in fact about Prague. It might have been about Budapest. But it doesn’t matter. The story says to me that the closer we look at something, and the longer we look at it, the less we really know about it. In the writing and research of this play I’ve read quite a bit by and about Kafka, yet I feel I know very little about him. Whenever I begin to feel I understand something about him, he becomes strangely opaque and eludes me again. Maybe he’s playing hard to get. Maybe he’s just like that.

I wrote the play in the hope that it would be accessible to all audience members, however much or little they knew about Kafka. But some people have said they’d appreciate a few facts, so here goes…

Franz Kafka was born into a Jewish family on 3rd July 1883 in Prague. His parents were Julie and Hermann Kafka. His mother came from a long line of mystics and eccentrics; his father had dragged himself up from peasant roots and remade himself as a fancy goods merchant. That Kafka and his father didn’t see eye to eye is well-documented but, as we see in the play, we only ever get to hear Kafka’s side of the story… After Franz was born, his parents had two more sons, neither of whom survived infancy. Then there came, in quick succession, three sisters: Elli, Valli and Ottla.

Franz was always writing. One of his favourite occupations as a child was to write plays, which he and his sisters performed for family and friends. Sadly, none of these has survived. Then, when he was nine or ten, he wrote a story about two brothers (an idea which he returned to at various points in his life, and which possibly became the germ of the idea behind his novel, America). An uncle snatched up the paper from Franz’s hands, read it, snorted and said nothing. When asked what it was like, the uncle replied, ‘The usual stuff.’ Kafka didn’t show anyone any of his work for a decade.

Kafka met Max Brod at university. At first they seemed unlikely friends, but Brod helped the reserved Kafka deal with social life and, already a published writer himself, encouraged his new friend with his writing. Brod was to continue to champion Kafka’s work, which all but eclipsed his own, until his death at the age of 84.

Kafka had found it difficult to decide what to study at university. He tried various courses: philosophy, chemistry, law, Germanistics and art history, and finally law again. He was eventually awarded the Doctorate of Laws in June 1906. He decided, for various reasons, against writing as a profession. After a one-year clerkship in the court system, Kafka began work for an Italian insurance company in Prague, the Assicurazioni Generali. This job lasted about nine months, after which Kafka began work at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, a post he remained at until he had to retire through ill health. Kafka hated this work, yet was very good at it, and personally instituted some very useful reforms to the system of compensation for industrial accidents. It also imposed a structure to his time, and left his nights free for writing.

Kafka first met Felice Bauer in August 1912. They corresponded, and this period coincided with a fiercely creative period in Kafka’s writing. It seemed that the relationship was good for Kafka’s work, but only at a distance. When the threat of marriage became all too real, Kafka fought against it. In many ways he was desperate to marry, but he felt that marriage at the cost of his writing would be too high a price to pay. The couple was engaged once, and then Kafka broke off the engagement. They became engaged again, at the time when this play is set, but once again the engagement was broken off, in circumstances Kafka always referred to as ‘the tribunal’ – circumstances which seem to have had direct bearing on his novel The Trial.

Kafka never married. He died of consumption in Vienna on 3rd June 1924, a month away from his 41st birthday.

Everything you see portrayed in this play is true, apart from the bits we’ve made up.

Kafka’s books include:


The Trial

The Castle

The Collected Short Stories

Letters to Felice

Letters to Milena

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

These books should be readily available from libraries and good book shops.



I first started reading Kafka when I was fourteen. When I tell people that, they sometimes look at me a bit oddly, and I can almost feel them thinking that I must have been a precocious little beast. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But it didn’t feel like it at the time.

I’d written a story for English homework, and was kept back after class to discuss it. Sensing more trouble, I became surlier than ever, and almost monosyllabic. Did I realise how good this was? No. What was I reading at the moment? Nothing. What did I like to read? Horror stories. (I teach quite a lot of theatre workshops these days and it’s a constant source of relief that very few children seem to be as vile as I was at that age, in spite of what everyone says about falling standards.) My teacher took a paperback book from her basket. I eyed it more than warily. It said ‘Penguin Modern Classics’. It also said ‘The Metamorphosis and Other Stories’. I knew what ‘metamorphosis’ meant although, if asked, would have denied it. And then it said ‘Franz Kafka’. It looked like a bad hand of Scrabble, an impossible round of pick-up-sticks. Did I know this writer? 'No,' I sneered. I was a champion sneerer. It was just that my story had reminded my teacher of this writer’s work – would I like to read some? I said I’d see what I could do. But of course I’d been flattered into curiosity. I read it. And I loved it. My teacher’s cunning took its effect – I became an avid reader of Kafka and lots of other people, and a slightly less avid writer. (By the way, she tried the same trick with me about a year later, with Dostoyevsky, who had been an influence on Kafka. And I fell for it again. But that’s another story. Or another play…)

I hadn’t read any Kafka for a while when Rory, in a bout of insomnia, took down Kafka’s short stories from my shelf and began to read them. ‘He’s good,’ he said. ‘I know,’ I said. (I’m still pretty monosyllabic.) ‘I’ve often thought,’ I said, ‘that they’d make the basis of a good play.’ I don’t know why I said that, because I hadn’t even thought about it until then. Rory said, ‘Perhaps you should write it.’ ‘Perhaps I will,’ I said, and fell asleep.

After that, I tried to forget about the idea. But Rory was insistent. ‘Which stories are you going to use?’ I read a bit, scribbled a bit, began to warm to my theme. But then disaster struck. Another theatre company was touring a long-running piece based on three of Kafka’s short stories. I didn’t know what to do. We had to put in a grant application for the project, and it wouldn’t be right for Bedlam to be doing something so similar to this other company’s project. ‘I’ll write something about Kafka himself,’ I offered vaguely, and started writing some grant application blurb, which is great practice for any creative writing you might be thinking of doing. We got a bit of funding for the project, so that meant it was really going ahead.

I knew I didn’t want to write a straightforward biographical treatment. I didn’t want to write a play where a writer sits at his desk scribbling. What about Kafka and his involvement with the Yiddish Theatre? That had already been covered by Timothy Daly in Kafka Dances. Kafka and his father? Alan Bennett had got there first with Kafka’s Dick. So I scribbled some more, read some more. I talked about it to people. I tried to avoid talking about it.

And gradually the idea began to take shape, after a welter of false starts. I knew I wanted the play to take place over a short period of time, and decided on a single night. I wanted a sense of claustrophobia, and a train carriage suggested itself to me. So Kafka was on a train? Good. But where was he going? And which point in his life should I choose? Eventually I decided upon Kafka’s journey to Berlin at Easter 1914, when he became unofficially engaged to Felice Bauer for a second time. Kafka’s relationship with Felice was pivotal – it forced him to decide whether to be a writer or a married man, as for Kafka the two states were irreconcilable. And I thought that Europe on the brink of war was as interesting a time to set a play as any, although the imminent carnage is nowhere mentioned overtly in the play, just as it is hardly mentioned by Kafka, although its influence on his writing is strong.

I knew I was writing for three actors. And I knew who they were, and how they worked, which helped. We knew TJ was going to play Kafka, but what about Rory and I? We were aware that it would be easy just to become supporting characters to the protagonist, and I wanted all three actors to contribute equally to the piece. It occurred to me that Kafka should meet two rather odd fellow travellers. But who were they? It took me quite a long time before I twigged who they were. I won’t tell you here, just in case you haven't seen the play yet. But it seems somehow right that the identity of the two other characters should elude me for so long, because this is the immediate problem that Kafka (and thus the audience) needs to solve in the play.

At times the play is confusing. I knew it would have to be, if it was going to reflect anything of the atmosphere of Kafka’s work. But I hope it’s a pleasurable sort of confusion, intriguing rather than merely baffling, and I hope you can solve the mystery before Kafka does! It isn’t an easy play. It wasn’t meant to be. But I hope it’s entertaining, for all that. And if you feel like reading some Kafka, or re-reading him, or reading some more, then I’ll feel it’s been a job well done.

Lots of people have helped with this production, in lots of ways. We’ve tried to thank them all elsewhere in this programme. But I’d really like to thank Rory, TJ and Chris for their help, patience and inspiration during the process of kicking the chaotic first draft of the play into shape. Many thanks, too, to my cat for his ‘help’ with the typing.

Emma Spurgin Hussey

(The above two articles were written for the programme for the first production of Axe for the Frozen Sea.)

‘Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’

Franz Kafka (Letter to Oskar Pollak, 27th January 1904.)



‘ ... a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ - FRANZ KAFKA


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