Great performances and the obvious affection for the original text, give this frantic production a heart
How do you adapt Franz Kafka’s The Trial for the stage or screen? It’s been done before of course, notably by Harold Pinter for his 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan, yes, Kyle Maclachlan, then riding high on Twin Peak powers. I haven’t seen Pinter’s version, but Nick Gill, the playwright behind the Young Vic’s nervy production, has clearly gone for ‘let’s throw everything at it and see what works’ approach.
And… it does work – in places. It’s a rather ramshackle production that veers between gripping, frustrating, amusing and boring. Directed by Richard Jones – a man steadier at the helm of operas – this production is frenetic, it barely stops for air, possibly afraid that if it did it may be found wanting. The logic seems to be, that if we keep going at this frantic pace, the audience may not notice the flaws.
But while there were flaws, I largely enjoyed this production, thanks to some very fine performances and, of course, Kafka’s surreal tale as the backbone. As Nick Gill says in this interview for Exeunt Magazine “if I fucking massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive”. Gill certainly doesn’t “fucking massacre it”, but does it a bit of a thwack over the head leaving us all a little dizzy.
Despite a good supporting cast, this is Kinnear’s play. He’s so good as Josef K with his trademark low key style that sees him making so much impact with a raised eyebrow or frown. It would have been good to have seen his face more, but the rectangle stage that had the audience sitting either side as co-conspirators meant we became more familiar with his back (which could also be very expressive).
This not a diss on Miriam Buether’s set, which sees a conveyor belt run through the middle of the rectangle stage, bringing with it various bits of bland furniture – we’re in K’s office, now we’re in his bedroom, oh, and back to his office – without having to break the pace. No wonder Kinnear was sweating through his vest.
There were moments when this production really sparked, when Kafta, Gill and the characters were all working as one. But overall I thought this would have worked better as a darker, even more surreal production, one that didn’t have to play for laughs as much. I know it’s a cliche to compare The Trial to 1984 (they obviously share a totalitarian thread, but have very different tones) but what I enjoyed about the Playhouse production of Orwell’s classic was that it captured his sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere. Guaranteed, The Trial is funnier than you’d think (no really) but it’s not a book you’d read for its lolz. And lets never speak about the bit where the talented Hugh Skinner (W1A’s intern Will “ya” Humphries) had to pretend to be a dog (“like a dog!”), which was weird at first and then just boring. And weird is always better boring, but they’re not always that different.