It’s difficult to think of a more apt time for Philip Glass’s take on Franz Kafka’s infamous 1925 novel The Trial to arrive in theatres. When a new American President is promising to refill Guantanamo Bay with inmates based on who they are rather than what they’ve done, the story of Josef K, a man who is arrested on his 30th birthday for a never specified crime, is one which carries a warning which will already be too late for some.
Glass’s ‘Trial’ is a co-production between Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera and Theater Magdeburg, and it is a great advert for European cultural collaboration. It opens in Josef K’s bedroom, a sparse set which will be subtly and inventively used throughout. Josef is awoken by two agents who appear to be the evil doppelgängers of Herge’s Thompson Twins from the Tintin books, with their bowler hats and wry moustaches. They are here to arrest him, but cannot tell him what for or who has accused him, something that Josef, after initial shock, takes lightly at first. But as the year unfolds, and his ‘trial’ begins, the seriousness of his situation begins to dawn. Is he an innocent man? Kafka asks which one of us can honestly claim to be, and that is part of the terror of this tale.
Nicholas Lester plays Josef K, and he is pristine in his suit and slicked hair, like a ventriloquist’s dummy brought to life; tellingly so as people try to put words in his mouth and manipulate him for their own benefit. What unfolds is a story of institutional corruption, from the agents who ask for his underwear and eat his breakfast, to the lawyers, judges and priests who hold his fate in their hands. Nearly everyone claims to be ‘simply obeying orders’, and the levels of bureaucracy reveal themselves as a modern version of Dante’s circles of hell.
While Lester is the leading man, this is undoubtedly an ensemble piece with all the others actors taking on multiple roles, and when they are not front and centre they are in the background watching and judging. They are part audience, part voyeurs, and this makes the theatre audience complicit also, watching passively as a man’s life is destroyed without discernible rhyme or reason. At a time when Big Brother is watching 24/7, this is a prescient and uncomfortable aspect of the production. None of what happens to Josef is private or is in isolation. At all times there is a face at the window, a bystander by-standing, or a crowd gathered who are only too keen to believe the rumours which surround Josef and to make their own uniformed opinions. Sound familiar?
As well as the staging, the costumes must be mentioned. Characters who resemble members of the Addams Family are rendered in sepia and grey, making for ghoulish presences. Another familiar filmic reference comes when the elderly court appointed priest moves around the stage with his shadow looming large in the background reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name. The priest’s presence is unsettling as Josef has to consider which law takes priority, that of the land or that of the church – or are they simply two sides of the same coin?
Mention has to be made of Philip Glass’s score. It is magnificent, and lifts a good production to greatness. It is the perfect accompaniment to the paranoia and malfeasance on the stage. At times haunting, at others urgent and unsettling as Josef K’s life unravels in just one-year. Kafka’s fiction has influenced some great Scottish novels, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Iain Banks’ The Bridge and Kames Kelman’s You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free to name just three. Anyone who knows those books and sees The Trial can’t fail but to make such connections.
It’s yet more evidence that Scottish Opera is involved in some of the most innovative theatre around, and they should be congratulated for their part in bringing such a fine production to Scotland. As I mentioned at the top of the page, the timing couldn’t be better. This is illustrated perfectly, and chillingly, by Josef K’s question to the priest, “Are lies part of a universal system?”. Replace “lies” with the term “alternative facts”, and reply with the same affirmative answer, and it begins to seem unarguable that Kafka’s time has come again. In truth, it never went away.
Here’s the trailer for The Trial:
Images courtesy of Scottish Opera