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The Trial

10 May 11 words: Tristram Lager Shandy
Nottingham Playhouse Youth Theatre enters the absurd world of Joseph K, a man arrested for an unspecified crime in Kafka's classic.
John Michael Fairless stars in the lead role of Joseph K.

Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) was published one year after his death and tells the story of Joseph K, a bank clerk who is arrested on his thirtieth birthday by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. What is of particular frustration to K is that nobody will give him a straight or simple answer as to why he has been arrested. Not knowing what he has done means he has no way of defending himself and so is rendered completely powerless.

'Kafkaesque' has since become a byword for senseless, disorienting complexity. It is the world of management speak, call centres that send you round and around, overbearing and pointless bureaucracy that hinders rather than helps. On a more extreme level it manifests in terrorist laws that allow prisoners to be held without legal representation or trial. All very topical then. 

Adapting the novel for the stage is incredibly ambitious for the following reasons. Firstly, Kafka never completed The Trial and so the narrative already contains some inconsistencies. Secondly, there is no real resolution for Joseph K and so you are denied the ‘traditional journey’ with the main protagonist. Finally, the world of Joseph K is one of immense frustration and absurdity which can be difficult to follow, a bit like being stuck in a lift with Donald Rumsfeld telling you there are ‘known unknowns’ about hydraulic operating systems. 

It is then of some relief that this task befell Steven Berkoff in 1970 when he adapted it for the The Roundhouse, using ten door frames, ten chairs and two pieces of rope on an otherwise bare stage. The recent production by the Nottingham Playhouse Youth Theatre has drawn on this to some extent, utilising movable frames and a cleverly constructed stage that had two buildings leaning inwards to symbolise the world collapsing in on Joseph K.

Nottingham Playhouse Youth Theatre in stage rehearsal with the movable door frames. 

Given that twenty teenagers occupied the stage, this was an excellent use of space and one that could only have worked using Berkoff’s style of ‘total theatre’ – heightened characters, stylised physical theatre and working as an ensemble. So for example, instead of shipping in lots of typewriters and desks to recreate an office, the cast physically became typewriters, ‘chinging’ away. On other occasions they grouped together to become transportation, acting as doors, steering wheel and the outer shell. Given the absurd nature of the book, this gave the play the needed surreal edge.        

‘Heightened characters’ aren’t for everyone, though. Their sheer energy and presence can be exhausting at times - a bit like being trapped at a party with someone who keeps telling you ‘how mad’ they are. The more they try to prove their zany antics, the duller they become. Hyperbole is also in danger of simplifying complexity which can lead to a lack of empathy. The exaggerated foreign accents of some of the cast, illustrates this. On one level it creates offensive stereotypes which may offend some people. However, I thought Hayden James was hilarious as the Inspector, with his country bumpkin long-pausing drool. It was perfectly suited to his role, capturing the absolute buffoonery of those supposedly in power, and unlike those occasional bores at parties, I couldn’t wait to see him on stage.

One of the main themes of the Trial is that there are forces beyond our control that, justly or unjustly, determine our fate. This made the perfect accompaniment then to Berkoff’s other recently produced play here, Oedipus, who powerless to overturn the victim of his fate, kills his father and marries his mother.

By the logic of existentialism we are all assigned unique roles in life and to find objective self-awareness, we need to try and make sense of the madness. The play clearly gets across these absurdities, throwing in numerous modern references (Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, ‘mad world’) which contrasted with the 1920s costumes. This works well because it places you between periods, in limbo, which is the very place inhabited by Joseph K.

Another important point for Kafka is that despite all suffering the same fate, we suffer it individually. By this logic there can be many readings of youth theatre. I’m not a ‘youth’ anymore so I wanted something a little bit more sinister. I wanted to literally have the walls collapse in to my face so that I could feel anger because that’s how I feel when I look around the world today. Angry and bitter. Instead Kafka got the ‘Glee’ makeover, with singing instead of screams. But the play received a rousing applause and so there were clearly many for whom this formula works, who’ve not become as embittered as I.

Kafka once wrote ‘A stair not worn hollow by footsteps is, regarded from its own point of view, only a boring something made of wood.’ Where youth theatre lacks the maturity of voice of an elder cast it is compensated for with energy and enthusiasm. It is anything but ‘boring’. In fact it is not even a stair. It is a speeding escalator. A compelling metamorphosis.   


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