'The Trial': Theater Review

David Sandison
Rory Kinnear in 'The Trial'
Rory K. gives good Josef K. in an otherwise disappointing update of Kafka's courtroom classic

British screen star Rory Kinnear returns to the London stage in a new adaptation of Franz Kafka's most celebrated novel, which marks its centenary this year.

Franz Kafka's immortal novel about guilt, paranoia and faceless bureaucracy is a 20th century classic that has inspired multiple stage, screen and radio adaptations. Starring Rory Kinnear, this stylistically bold new version from director Richard Jones and composer-turned-playwright Nick Gill is full of smart touches, but it lacks emotional force and dramatic focus. By the end of its single two-hour act, The Trial lives up to the unfortunate double meaning of its title.

Kinnear (Skyfall, The Imitation Game, Penny Dreadful), who has won awards for his Hamlet and Iago at London's National Theatre, is not the weak link here. He gives a gilt-edged, guilt-etched performance as Josef K., a high-level bank employee in an unnamed European city who wakes on the morning of his 35th birthday to find himself under arrest for unspecified crimes. Initially defiant, he is gradually worn down as interminable legal hearings drag him into an absurdist farce of impenetrable language and labyrinthine power games. Kinnear puts a very English twist on Kafka's autobiographical antihero, making him a comically awkward middle-management buffoon in the tradition of Basil Fawlty or David Brent.

Miriam Buether's traverse-style stage design is the other main star of the show, a giant treadmill that operates sporadically throughout the performance, with beds and desks trundling into view as if on an airport luggage carousel. A vast orange rectangle with a cutout keyhole motif also hangs low overhead initially, before being hoisted aloft for the remainder of the evening. Meanwhile, the audience observes from banked wooden bench seats clearly intended to suggest a courtroom. Even the seating gallery's exterior walls are pressed into dramatic service, plastered with youthful shots of Kinnear alongside K.'s record of petty crimes.

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The travelator design adds an arduous physical dimension to the performances, especially that of Kinnear, who is onstage for the duration. Frequently required to stride at the same speed as the treadmill simply to remain center stage, mostly under punishing bright lights, he spends much of the evening soaked in sweat. Striking and original at first, the conveyor belt soon comes to feel like a restrictive gimmick. Perhaps it has a symbolic meaning, representing the relentless mechanical momentum of a complex legal case, or K.'s own subliminal drive toward self-destruction? If so, it's too obscure to make a solid dramatic point.

Gill and Jones take a few cautious liberties with Kafka's story: character names have been anglicized, their roles updated. The court painter Titorelli becomes a kind of ageing 1980s Euro-pop gigolo named Tudor (Richard Cant), who inexplicably brands trial defendants with tattoos, like caged animals. A little more of this irreverent surrealism might have added some much-needed comic zing to Gill's text, which mostly favors lightly menacing Harold Pinter-esque staccato banter. His chief innovation is giving K. a series of "subvocal" monologues in a jerky childlike argot in which he replays awkward sexual misdeeds from his youth, jabbering anxiously as he tries to stuff these painful memories back down into his Freudian subconscious.

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Posthumously assembled from incomplete fragments by Kafka's friend Max Brod, The Trial was always a cryptic and elusive fable steeped in the author's sexual neurosis, fear of his remote father,and sense of alienation as a Central European Jew. Written a century ago but not published until 1925, the book that came to epitomize the term "Kafkaesque" achieved its enduring cultural importance partly due to its prophetic power, arriving just as Hitler and Stalin were on the rise, perverting the justice system with totalitarian oppression and politically slanted show trials. Many subsequent adaptations of the novel, notably Orson Welles' 1962 film, have amplified this disquieting Cold War subtext.

Gill and Jones strip away these historical resonances, which is a perfectly valid artistic decision, except that they fail to replace them with any strong contemporary context. Instead, they hint that Josef K. is chiefly haunted by guilt over youthful sexual misdemeanors, which feels both dramatically flimsy and poorly explained. In an age when totalitarian regimes and violent anti-Semitism are resurgent across the globe, and debate rages over state surveillance in the wake of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, this concentration on the personal over the political also seems like a missed opportunity.

Kinnear is backed by a strong ensemble cast, most playing multiple roles. Kate O'Flynn deserves special mention for her versatility in taking on six characters, all distinct in accent and mannerism. David Sawer's score of sinister fairground music also provides an effective complement to the increasingly ominous events onstage. Even so, fine ingredients and flashy set design cannot compensate for a lack of serious political or psychological depth. Crucially, this classic courtroom drama lacks conviction.

Cast: Rory Kinnear, Kate O'Flynn, Hugh Skinner, Sian Thomas, Weruche Opia, Richard Cant
Director: Richard Jones
Playwright: Nick Gill
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Music: David Sawer
Fight director: Bret Yount
Movement: Sarah Fahie
Presented by the Young Vic