It really pains me to say that, despite the best efforts of the magnificent Rory Kinnear, The Trial at the Young Vic is not one to remember.
Kafka’s classic novel on guilt, authority and injustice has been reworked into a bizarre time-shifting comedy-drama, ripping all soul and emotional punch from the piece. Even the language is obscure, with contemporary dialogue fragmented with monologues in broken German-English.
Rory Kinnear is Josef, the unlikeable, brash anti-hero of the play who wakes up on his 35th birthday to find that he has been arrested for a crime. Only he is not allowed to know the details of the alleged crime or the specifics of his impending trial. Instead he finds his life overrun by odd members of the secret police who rummage through his possessions, steal his clothes and infiltrate his workplace.
Bewildered, Josef then starts a run through the shady world of unfathomable State authority and the personalities who feed of it, in an increasingly desperate attempt to either prove his innocence or reconcile himself with his guilt.
This constant movement, this unavoidable journey to a fate that is already sealed the moment he is accused, is visually demonstrated by a travellator that comprises the stage. Sets pass by like items on a conveyor belt as Josef keeps moving on through his life, and through the worlds he enters and leaves. The audience is filed in on either side of this travellator in long benches – like jurors weighing up the guilt of the accused.
Sounds good so far but from here on in, it gets really confusing.
The production design from Miriam Buether, I sense, is an attempt at a timeless setting but it all became a bit of a mish-mash. The lawyer who takes on Josef’s case is situated in the late 1960s / early 1970s with her A-line skirts, chintzy ceramic dogs and her erstwhile Nana Mouskouri-esque best friend.
But her assistant listens to Bananarama, Josef’s colleagues at the Bank are all in sharp modern suits and the artist that Josef makes his final roll of the dice with is some kind of camped-up Andy Warhol cliché. The pop culture references are all over the place and instead of making the production interestingly elusive, it just makes the piece impossible to get a handle on.
Usually I applaud risks taken but I simply don’t understand any of the creative decisions in this production. Director Richard Jones’ decision to mix moments of farcical comedy and curious language with surreal passages just alienates the audience and dilutes the power of this classic story. Instead of anger at authority and injustice, we, the audience, just feel limp and desperate for the end.
Too quickly the piece becomes episodic, the quirky characters Josef encounters are one-dimensional and uninteresting, and the stakes don’t ever seem as if they are getting any higher. It’s just the monotonous journey. In that way, the flat conveyor belt seems appropriate – never going up or going down. Just endlessly running on in one flat line.
There’s no interval in this two hour show yet even that didn’t prevent some in the audience from leaving whilst the actors were still on the stage.
Towards the climax of the play, as I watched the events unfold with minimal interest or emotional involvement, I felt bad for Rory Kinnear as his talent stands out a mile yet not even he can save this production.
And he does try. His monologues towards the end start having some punch, as Josef realises that the seemingly insignificant events of his life are actually loaded with guilt and shame. But it’s too late and the language in the adaption from Nick Gill still obfuscates. A missed opportunity.
Young Vic Theatre, London to August 22, 2015
- Rory Kinnear as Josef K in The Trial at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.
- Steven Beard as Uncle Albert and Rory Kinnear as Josef K in The Trial at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.
- Sian Thomas as Mrs Grace and Hugh Skinner as Block in The Trial at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.
- The company of The Trial at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.