The Trial

Young Vic Theatre, London,

© Keith Pattison

© Keith Pattison

Well, I’d best come clean. Some experiences just don’t work for you, do they?

Doesn’t often happen with me at the theatre. Mostly, as anyone who has the time or inclination to read my reviews, may have gathered, I’m an enthusiast. A good story, well staged, clearly spoken, I’m there. Complex? That’s fine. Have to work hard to work out the director/author’s intention? That’s okay by me, too.

But when what you can hear of the script makes little sense and the staging leaves you pondering the nature of the ceiling – Miriam Buether’s gigantic pop-art keyhole  in startling pink and yellow – rather than what is happening on stage, well then maybe it’s time to call `defeated’ on this particular occasion.

But then ironically, `defeated’, is exactly the state of mind arrived at by Franz Kafka’s protagonist/narrator of The Trial, Joseph K. Perhaps Richard Jones’ intention was to so disorientate his audience as to simulate Joseph K’s own confused and despairing state. If so, he succeeded spectacularly with this spectator. Joseph’s nightmare journey, starting on his 30th birthday when he is arrested for he knows not what proceeded without me really engaging with that journey – or, more importantly, ultimately caring much about what was happening to him. Nothing pleasant to be sure. But did I care? Not much, I’m afraid.

Which is a more than a bit of a tragedy because if anything expresses better or more acutely the kind of surveillance obsessed, brain-numbing world in which we now live than The Trial I can’t think of it. Not for nothing has `kafkaesque’ entered the lexicon as the best description of the frustrating minefield encountered in dealing with any corporate or bureaucratic business these days. Or the systemic invasions of privacy at every turn. Joseph K has become the exemplar of the anonymous, numberless state to which we can all now be condemned.

The Trial therefore with its world of faceless bureaucrats, inexplicable twists and dream-like surreality could and should find a few matching correspondences with our everyday experience.

© Keith Pattison

© Keith Pattison

The Company in Kafka's The Trial at the Young Vic, London, June 2015

© Keith Pattison

Sadly, for this spectator, in Jones’ production, this was seldom despite a Young Vic auditorium brilliantly reconfigured by presumably Buether – a stunning mix of a corrida and banks of seating appropriately simulating jury seating in a court-room – with the action taking place traversely, on a moving conveyor belt.

Jones’ pop-art motif too is carried throughout, garishly in the female characters – Joseph’s various imagined or real girl-friends, sex workers and Sian Thomas’ female lawyer, Mrs Grace – or as what I take to be a dream-sequence of black-garbed judges, under-stated to look like hooded beggars or oxygen-masked pensioners. Today’s world but not of today’s world, heightened, unreal, but almost impossible to fix as a reference point.

Rory Kinnear in a performance of mesmerising endurance and guts as Joseph K – he’s on stage for the whole uninterrupted two hours – was the one lynchpin upon whom I relied to guide me through this labyrinthine world. But even here, given Nick Gill’s bizarre adaptation – Joseph K has a particular way of speaking, an almost unintelligible `inner voice’ – Kinnear was hard pressed to make Joseph K and his thoughts communicative. To my ears, at least.

In the end, I sort of lost the will to live – or decipher Jones’s aesthetic which prompted in me no correspondence of either dream or surreal worlds and terror only insofar as a scene of torture – Joseph being tattooed – from which I could neither gain sense or meaning.

Tattoo? Latter day equivalent of a stamp? A mark? `Everything’, says the tattooist, a character called Tudor, `belongs to the Court. …`The Law’s already found the guilt; all I do is reveal it. Anyone can learn the officials’ badges and whatnot, but reading the guilty, that’s black arts. Easy if you know what you’re looking for. If you’re around it long enough.’

A physical metaphor for an unnamed persecution? – stamped and condemned for a crime you have no idea you’ve committed? Maybe, but, as I say, by this time, I’d given up. A trial? Yes, it was.

The Trial is at the Young Vic Theatre to Aug 22, 2015

First published in Londongrip, June 2015