It has been a long final term as a teacher. Thankfully over a week ago I finished up for the summer. As a result my blogging and reading has slowed with my own exhaustion! Nevertheless, I am posting a number of reviews and things before the month is out. It seems apt then that I review here Franz Kafka's classic novel 'The Trial' and the play adaptation of it currently showing at the Young Vic in London starring Rory Kinnear.
As a teacher, I know the feeling of being swamped by paperwork or feeling under scrutiny from management or the dreaded Ofsted. But, at least I have never been under an absurd trial like poor Joseph K. in Kafka's seminal novel. 'The Trial' is a frustrating, mad, prophetic tale of a banker, Joseph K., who is one day suddenly arrested with no information as to why. K. initially considers this a joke until he is plunged into a bureaucratic nightmare; escorted by wardens, attending an insane court, meeting half-dead lawyers and administrators who tell him nothing and offer little hope for his innocence.
It is a bewildering and intense work of fiction and I must admit I struggled, although this surely must be the point. There are no paragraph breaks and dialogue is mixed together, resulting in a confusing, often disjointed read. Most of the 'story' (if it can even be deemed as such) concerns the maddening bureaucracy of K's conviction and ongoing, mysterious trial. There are pages and pages of frustrating and confusing details of the judicial process (if there really is one) and I felt myself going insane as much as K. I want to think that there is some metaphorical or symbolic underpinning but I don't believe that this is what Kafka intended. Instead, the book seems to foreshadow the nature of totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century (the book was written before WW1 but published in 1925). It is Orwellian before Orwell. However, K's predicament is perhaps worse than Winston's in 1984; at least Winston knew what he was facing a little more than K. Also, I cannot help but see K's unexpected arrest with no reason as a glimpse of what was to come in Germany with Nazi officials simply turning up to arrest Jews in their homes. History, reality would become worse than even Kafka could imagine. In this way, the book has its place as a terrifying warning and should rightly hold its place alongside other books of its kind such as 1984 and Brave New World. Personally I found it very hard to read or particularly enjoy. Again, that may be the point.
The current stage play of 'The Trial' at the Young Vic is an engrossing and unique adaptation. The audience are seated like a courtroom (see picture) and the stage is literally a conveyor belt; actors, props, scenes, doors, paperwork are moved across like some judicial, dystopian Generation Game. It is a unique way to visually tell the story and, with the orange lighting, creates a disturbing, frustrating vision of the book. Rory Kinnear as Joseph K is superb. He plays the every-man effortlessly but also highlights K's growing frustrations and anxiety without being over-the-top; it could easily descend into pantomime. Kinnear brings enough reality to the surreal proceedings. At points, the direction reminds me of a mad Terry Gilliam film. There are moments of canned laughter and a cast of international freaks whose faces and actions would not be out of place in a Monty Python sketch. Sometimes this feels at odds with Kafka's far greyer, bleaker vision, but as theatrics works to vary the pace and change the tone. There are other notable differences with the book, namely more sexual undertones; suggestions of sexual guilt. Indeed the play starts with K getting a sordid lap-dance. In some respects this takes away the immediate mystery present in the book, but also updates the book for a contemporary audience. This has its merits but sometimes feels unnecessary.
If you are fed up with modern bureaucracy then I suggest you read 'The Trial.' If you have a nervous disposition or don't like to be easily confused, then perhaps just go and see the play, which is a more enjoyable, though twisted experience, with unusual direction and an excellent cast.