Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Theatre review: The Trial

In the past I've left a Richard Jones production at the Young Vic at the interval, but for his new show he's found a cunning way to prevent that: The Trial doesn't have an interval. Nick Gill adapts Franz Kafka's surreal nightmare of bureaucracy in which, after a drunken night out, Josef K (Rory Kinnear) wakes up on the morning of his birthday to find a group of officials at his flat - at least he assumes they're officials, they have no documentation to show him. But they do tell him he has to prepare to go on trial, although neither he nor the court must know what he's being accused of. Over the next year he is required to attend hearings at unspecified times and places, complete endless paperwork and make deals with shady bureaucrats. Initially dismissing the accusations as a joke, he becomes increasingly paranoid as everyone he meets seems to know about the trial and take it very seriously.

Eventually the impossible task of defending himself against an unknown accusation becomes an obsession. His work and personal life suffer as he deals with it, and he goes over his past life to try and pinpoint any wrongdoing that might have caused him to be targeted.


Miriam Buether's staging - which like most of her collaborations with Jones at the Young Vic is largely made of unpainted plywood - is dominated by a travelator, bringing sets and actors on and off the stage and making for a strong symbol of Josef K's endless journey leading nowhere. Unfortunately that's pretty much the only symbolism that's remotely clear in Jones' masturbatory production. This is one of those shows whose main purpose seems to be to confuse the audience, all the better to showcase the creatives' cleverness: Perhaps if I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Kafka's original I'd know why a sexually precocious little girl has pictures of serial killers in her bedroom, or why Nana Mouskouri's wandering around the lawyer's house handing out paperwork, but as it stands it feels wilfully impenetrable.


Apart from Kinnear, the cast - which includes Sian Thomas as Josef's lawyer, whose strategy appears to be to do nothing, and Hugh Skinner as another defendant who's turned himself into a dog to satisfy the mysterious courts - all multitask. But while most of them play two or three roles, is there a significance to Kate O'Flynn playing almost all the female parts, leaving her on stage almost a much as Kinnear? (Her costume changes must be as much of a technical feat as the loading and unloading of props onto the conveyor belt.) And why when Josef speaks to himself does he use an irritating Pidgin English?


It's hard to believe we're actually meant to find meaning in any of this, rather sit back and admire the cleverness. Instead I found this a ploddingly boring couple of hours and I clearly wasn't alone: Ian declared it the worst thing he's ever seen, and next to him was sitting an actor I saw in a play a couple of months ago, who spent the majority of the show fast asleep; the staging means the audience is usually visible, so I could see others were struggling not to join him. The only time The Trial came close to engaging with me emotionally was completely by accident: When an "artist" (Richard Cant) brands defendants with random verdicts, he does so to the accompaniment of Al Bano & Romina Power's "Felicità," which was a big hit in Greece when I was growing up so it gave me flashbacks. As for whatever the show was actually meant to make me feel or think about? I ended up most struck not just by the tedium, but by the fact that a frantic surrealist nightmare failed to have any suggestion of either humour or menace.

The Trial by Franz Kafka in an adaptation by Nick Gill is booking until the 22nd of August at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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