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The Trial

22 November 2018

Haunting, Harrowing, Horrifying

The Trial

by Stephen Berkoff, adapted from Franz Kafka

Youth Action Theatre at the Hampton Hill Theatre, until 24th November

Review by John O’Brien

Franz Kafka’s The Trial, written in 1925, is one of the most important literary works of the twentieth Century. Indeed Kafkaesque has entered the language as a byword for byzantine bureaucratic obfuscation and frustration. Youth Action Theatre is currently reviving Stephen Berkoff’s 1971 adaptation. Directed by Rowan D ‘Albert it is showing all this week at Hampton Hill Theatre.

Trial Promo

The set is suitable minimalist. Think of a contestant on Mastermind as she sits in that chair in the dark, add eerie music by Philip Glass, and a rope that hangs menacingly from the gantry and you have some idea of the show’s visual and aural presentation. This chiaroscuro contrast gives the set the feel of a German expressionist classic, such as Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927).

Joseph K (Benjamin Buckley) is a young man who works as a clerk in a Bank and lives as a lodger in the house of Mrs Grubach (Ella Barnett). One morning he is arrested by two guards (Meagan Baxter and Joe Evans) on charges which are never made explicit. Joseph K. now enters a nightmarish Alice in Wonderland horror world of bureaucracy, law and unaccountable arbitrary power. The labyrinthine nature of this world is wonderfully realised by the use of six copper frames which do double duty as doors but also as mirrors. As he walks through and around these doors cum mirrors so Joseph becomes trapped in a series of absurd and menacing encounters. Famously this has become widely known through the notion of The Trial. But what’s very well demonstrated by this production is that The Trial is a metaphor for the whole of society as it impinges on the individual. One’s whole life is a trial so to speak. So we see Joseph being tormented by his landlady Mrs Grubach, his Father who recommends a terrible lawyer, Huld the Lawyer (Mary Rycroft), The Bank Manager (Cameron Christie), The Inspector (Josh Clarke), The Artist Titorelli (Josh Clarke), the Priest (Joe Evans) and various unpleasant women Miss Burstner (Georgia Griffiths) , Leni (Zofia Komoroska), the Laundress (Mary Rycroft) . All these different aspects of society, the law, finance, art, religion, the family, women are shown to confine, confuse and control Joseph in their own unique way. But what they all have in common is power. They symbolise the power of institutions over which Joseph has little if any control. He is a victim. Moreover he is alone. More than that the people he encounters are unreliable. So he becomes confused and paranoid.

What makes The Trial so haunting, so harrowing, so horrifying is the notion that you are on your own, the people you encounter have mendacious designs on you and that there is no way out. This is a deeply pessimistic and terrifying vision. But only fifteen years after he wrote it, the holocaust was under way and Kafka’s vision was all too real. It was happening. And in Germany the most civilised country in Europe, the home of Beethoven, Goethe and Einstein.

Walter Benjamin who committed suicide in 1940 as the Nazis closed in on him famously remarked that “every document of civilisation is simultaneously a document of barbarism”. The Trial is one of the most prescient, pessimistic and profound demonstrations of the truth of that aphorism. If you don’t know The Trial then this is a very good place to acquaint yourself with it. If you do then this intriguingly beguiling production will add fresh layers of meaning.

John O’Brien
November 2018

Photography courtesy of YAT

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From → Drama, Reviews

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