Writer: Franz Kafka
Adapter: Nick Gill
Director: Richard Jones
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The relationship between state control and individual liberty has long been a thorny issue, so any encroachment on what are seen as the essential rights and freedoms of citizens can cause uproar. Naturally then this area has proved fruitful for writers and dramatists keen to explore extreme societies in which totalitarian regimes punish transgression from pre-determined norms. Given the UK’s current age of austerity it is no surprise that theatre has recently revived a number of works that consider controlling governments, including 1984 at the Playhouse and a new adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial at the Young Vic.
Josef K is a senior bank worker arrested at home for an unspecified crime on his 35th birthday. He is not detained but released to await a series of hearings which will determine his guilt. Assured there has been a mistake Josef is initially untroubled and goes back to work but as he becomes more embroiled in the unknowable systems of ‘The Court’ he finds his life overtaken by the case and becomes increasingly desperate to work out what he could possibly have done.
The Trial is a no straightforward play, but mixes elements of absurdism with Brechtian approaches and naturalistic acting styles, and it is certainly a ‘challenging’ experience for an audience. Designer Miriam Buether has transformed the Young Vic’s largest space into a raked courtroom made of orange and brown boxes. In the centre is a large keyhole which lifts to reveal a long treadmill running through the centre of the room on which all the action takes place. It is a useful metaphor for the inevitability of the process in which Josef becomes engaged, moving only in one direction. The look and feel is a heightened world of surreal colours and people, but doesn’t quite feel like the totalitarian state that story implies.
One of the major difficulties of this play is the deliberate alienation of the audience, particularly from any proper engagement with Josef’s character and plight. His monologues are a kind of nonsense-speak sitting somewhere between verse, Joyce and baby talk, such as ‘im watched from all round windows, sunk all / stary eyes in bobby heads on spring, slobberjaw / an blanken lips’. Instead the viewer is asked to be an impassive observer or collaborator in the action, yet this is slightly in tension with the metaphor-laden sets which try to give the audience more rather than less insight into this surreal world.
Despite the strangeness of this production, Rory Kinnear and Kate O’Flynn are its saving grace, giving masterful performances as the main protagonists. Kinnear’s Josef moves affectingly from a man only slightly perturbed by his wrongful arrest to some utterly obsessed and increasingly dishevelled as his entire life is given over to solving his case. There is a lot of humour in the early scenes which he times extremely well but watching his physical and emotional disintegration as the pressure takes its toll is the high point of this production – and you would expect nothing less of one of Britain’s finest stage actors.
Kate O’Flynn rises impressively to the challenge of playing six different women with distinct rôles and personalities (specified in the stage directions). How much of what is seen is in Josef’s mind is for the viewer to decide but, with the exception of the lawyer (aggressively played by Sian Thomas) this is a highly sexualised world for women and all of O’Flynn’s characters are objectified in some way as strippers, cleaners or predatory girls, many of whom offer sex and are attracted by Josef’s new-found notoriety. It’s never entirely explained why but O’Flynn’s ability to leap rapidly between independently-formed characters is impressive.
Despite its fine cast The Trial is at best a niche production that can only appeal to serious lovers of modernist forms of theatre. The minimalist story telling is at odds with the exuberant design, making it messily too much and too little. There are multiple elements that don’t feel entirely united and the faceless nature of The Court is not nearly as threatening as it should be. Kinnear and O’Flynn certainly save the day but it doesn’t leave you with any real insight into the dangers of overly bureaucratic and unaccountable government.
Runs Until: 22 August | Photo: Keith Patterson