When I first heard that the Final Year Acting Students were going to present a devised adaptation of Kafka’s First World War novel The Trial, I was excited by the prospect of seeing a bold and ambitious piece of work. I remember reading it at school and discovering it was an unsettling, murky book; I didn’t like it (I’m sure I didn’t understand it either) but there’s something about it that makes you carry on reading. It leads you down one path only to show you that there’s nothing there after all and that all the action’s down another path. And once you get down the second path, you wonder what it all meant. In a word – Kafkaesque.
So the medium of an immersive, promenade performance works perfectly for this story, leading the audience up to one part of the acting space to share in one scene, only to then move to another part for the story to continue. In the end, we’re all in a huge circle with the actors enveloped by us, like one massive Ring – a – Ring – a – Roses, and indeed, they do all fall down dead.
Before that, there is the usual mix of danger and discomfort that is often an element of an immersive show. Even before you enter the studio, an armed, balaclava’d soldier stands at the door, so you sneak past hoping not to make eye contact only to be bellowed at by another soldier for trying to walk in the wrong direction. When you’re not seated in rows but instead are walking around the acting space aimlessly, waiting for the play to begin, it’s surprisingly isolating. Add to the fact that you are required to wear a mask, and that the lighting is turned down very low, you do feel very vulnerable. So when a soldier bellows at you to “f***ing move”, it’s hard not to take it personally. But it’s all part of that dangerous sense of tension and conflict, which the ensemble convey superbly well.
The programme notes tell us that, rather than being a formal staging of the novel, this adaptation takes the concept of Trial and applies it to the problems faced by young people today; whilst still keeping many of Kafka’s original characters. The protagonist, Joseph K, is played by six actors; and why not? Like Walt Whitman, K contradicts himself; he is large, he contains multitudes. We first see the six of them, inextricably linked, asleep on the floor, slowly waking up in sequence as though in slow shutter speed movement; only to be disturbed by the arresting officers, when they fracture into their six identities and are never reunited again.
It’s a very loose adaptation. I’m sure Donald Trump and Chubby Checker don’t appear in the original – but that’s not to say they wouldn’t if Kafka had heard of them! Characters come together, argue, kiss, have sex and move on with no sense of commitment. A fatuous judge is borne aloft on stage to tell us that she is a judge and everyone else is dead impressed. Some scenes from the book are closely recognisable – like the scene with the court clerk, or in the church with the priest; others are not. Gracious hosts welcome us all to a party with a variety of dance numbers that we can join in with if we wish. I would be lying if I said I understood the relevance of every scene, but it was all done with compelling commitment.
It’s very hard to identify individual performers from this strong ensemble because they’re all part of the jigsaw; if one were to go missing, so to speak, it would disrupt the whole picture. However, I was very impressed with how Charlie Mackenzie swung from sadistic guard to charming party host, Moses Gale’s unctuously threatening priest, and all the members of the whispering mob who chattered behind the judge’s back.
I love challenging theatre, and I love immersive theatre; so, this production wins on both fronts. At fifty minutes this is perfect fringe festival material and gives you loads to think and talk about on the way home. Great stuff!
P. S. I decided to let myself go during the dance scene. I shared a beautiful moment with Michael Gukas, singing along to Strawberry Fields Forever like two drunken sots; only then to ruin it with my disgraceful, dad dancing rendition of Night Fever. Sorry about that. Don’t have nightmares.