Franz Kafka's The Trial Is A Guilty Nightmare — Review

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 48 months ago
Franz Kafka's The Trial Is A Guilty Nightmare — Review ★★★☆☆ 3

Rory Kinnear as Josef K in The Trial at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Franz Kafka’s classic novel The Trial feels like a protracted existentialist nightmare from which one never awakes. No other writer quite conveys Kafka’s vision of how ‘normal’, day-to-day existence can suddenly lurch absurdly into a much more disturbing situation where nothing is sure or safe. This Young Vic production of Nick Gill’s new adaptation captures the story’s sense of dislocated reality and surreal humour, without creating enough tension or menace in the downward spiral of its protagonist.

On his 35th birthday Josef K is awoken at home by the abrupt arrival of three unnamed agents who have come to arrest him — they are acting on the instructions of the mysterious Court but they won’t tell him what crime he has been accused of. His attempts to settle back into his executive job at the bank are distracted by his need to prepare his case, which involves hiring a lawyer and filling in a lot of forms. While feeling increasingly alienated and humiliated, K becomes entangled in a web of sinister bureaucracy from which there seems to be no escape.

Apart from the usual problem of transposing prose fiction into staged drama, The Trial is also incomplete, so Gill’s contemporary version follows its own logic. His main invention is to give speech to K’s ‘inner voice’, which other characters cannot hear, expressed in a stylised, child-like lingo that sits oddly with the rest of the dialogue. It also gives K a bit of a back story, as he speaks of his shame at failings in his relationships with others, especially sexual hang-ups with women. The emphasis is very much on an interior, personal crisis, rather than the political zeitgeist that Kafka seemed to tap into in the first half of the 20th century, suggesting a totalitarian police state where everyone is under surveillance.

Richard Jones’s highly visual, dynamic direction evokes a dreamlike reality that shows a distorted parallel to K’s everyday routine, so that he is out of kilter with others around him, but it could do with more urgency. Miriam Buether’s striking design features a destabilising travelator that changes direction, with one scene fluidly moving into the next as K walks through a door into another location, with a giant keyhole etched into the low ceiling above. And with the audience seated on all four sides in high, wooden-backed tiers, it seems we are the court sitting in judgment in the trial of K’s life.

As the anti-hero, Rory Kinnear gives a strong impression of a progressively more desperate man cracking under the strain, as all the usual comforts that give him security fall away, and low self-esteem leads to passivity. Kate O’Flynn plays a succession of women with whom K becomes uneasily erotically entwined, Hugh Skinner is his frustrated colleague who has to cover for him and Siân Thomas his smooth-talking lawyer who gets nowhere with his case — there may never be a verdict but K is guilty until proved innocent.

The Trial is on at the Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo, SE1 8LZ until 22 August. Tickets are £10-£35. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.


Last Updated 29 June 2015