The Trial – A Review

The Trial’, translated into English from Franz Kafka’s novel ‘Der Process’ and then adapted for the stage by Steven Berkoff, is a play like no other. It asks huge existential questions about life and loneliness, and offers little in the way of answers. It is a play, (to quote audience member, and School Chaplain, Mr West), which you aren’t supposed to “get”. Instead, the audience is invited to observe and absorb the story. Everyone is likely to take something different away from it. 

Joseph K, a long-suffering bank clerk, is arrested one morning in his bedroom. He is not told what he is supposed to have done wrong, merely that he is arrested. The plot follows K’s desperate (and ultimately futile) search for justice. His surreal journey through the murky world of Kafka’s dystopian justice system sees him meet senile lawyers, volatile court painters, seductive laundresses and various other (very unhelpful!) characters along the way.

And so we move on to Clayesmore Theatre’s production.

An Arresting Production!

Staging such a bizarre and intellectually ambitious play, was always going to be a challenge. Right out of the gate, the actors and crew had to get to grips both with Kafka’s nihilistic and bleak world-view, whilst also learning Berkoff’s trade-mark ‘Total Theatre’ style of acting and staging. Both of which would challenge even the most fervent undergraduate drama students! The success of this production (and it was a huge success) lies with the fact that they took the challenge head on, embracing the inevitable ‘oddness’, rather than trying to explain it away.

On arriving at the theatre the audience were struck first by the set and staging. The usual proscenium arch stage had been transformed into a ‘thrust layout’ (i.e. the audience seated on three sides of the stage rather than on just one). The monochrome tones and mostly-bare set instantly informed us that we were not about to see anything resembling reality. The only items of scenery on the white, three-tear stage, aside from a few black boxes and stools, were ten white door frames. The frames’ versatility soon became clear when the lights came up for the first time.

The entire cast (twenty one students from Years 9-13) entered the stage from the first beat and did not leave it again (accept during a short interval) until the last beat of the play. Their collective attention and focus for all of this time is truly something to be commended. Actively listening and staying engaged in front of a live audience for an hour and a half, without ever leaving the stage, might sound straightforward. It isn’t. It’s hard work. This cast were clearly ‘in it together’ – they had to be. Every few moments the ten screens were seamlessly, (sometimes imperceptibly) repositioned to form an entirely new surrounding – a bank, a tenement block, a laundry, a cathedral . . . the list goes on. The sheer ingenuity of this was a pleasure to watch. It was so simple and yet so . . . satisfyingly meticulous! 

A production of this play needs a strong actor to play K. And boy oh boy, did it have one in Yr 13 student, Ollie. A veteran of Clayesmore Theatre, Ollie, (having acted in more than 10 productions since Yr 9), took to the stage for his swansong performance on Friday night. He expertly captured the vulnerability and anxiety of K. Through his honest exchanges with the audience, we saw the character’s slow plummet into a world of despair and anguish before finally and inevitably accepting his fate. And yet, and this is important, he also managed to keep in the (admittedly dark but undeniably hilarious) humour, which productions of this play too often leave in the rehearsal room.

Had I mentioned that? It is actually really, really funny! 

Other moments of hilarity occurred when K came across the various female characters whom he (consistently and often inexplicably) fell head over heels for. Miss Burstner, played coquettishly by Lucy (Yr 12), runs hot and cold, leaving K totally confused. She sits on his lap at one point leading him to directly address the audience with a well-timed quip expressing his desire for her to ‘change position so [he] could concentrate’. 

And then there was the Laundress and the Student (played respectively by Helene and Ali, both Yr 12). K’s instant longing for the Laundress leads to a ‘tussle behind a bed sheet’ involving all three characters, leaving the audience in stitches. And this was just a precursor to K’s final infatuation with Leni (played by Sofi, Yr 11). The scene with ‘the kiss’ precipitated a large gasp of excitement from the audience!

Other notable performances came from Yr 10 actors, Evie Askew, Eliza Jeavons and Seth Complin. Playing very different parts, they all captivated the audience with their stage presence. As Huld, (a forgetful old attorney), Evie brought a huge amount of fumbling exuberance and nervous energy to a part of the play which on paper might well have seemed dry. It was anything but. And Eliza’s turn, as the live-wire, Italian painter, Titorelli, was truly mesmerising. A masterclass in how to enthuse the audience and frankly a joy to watch! And as for Seth’s ‘Gollum-esque’ portrayal of Block well . . . what can I say? ‘Odd’ simply doesn’t cover it. And that, when performing in a Berkovian style is about as big a compliment one can give!

There were too many other outstanding performances to mention here. Suffice to say, every member of the company (cast and crew) should be exceptionally proud of what they achieved. I hope they all now have a well-earned (Kafka-free!) break over the Christmas holidays!