Features Q&A and Interviews Published 23 June 2015

Nick Gill: “Even if I massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive”

Duncan Gates asks Nick Gill about The Trial, adaptation, and 'shared industry'.
Duncan Gates

Nick Gill is one of the quieter success stories of British theatre. An original member of experimental short play heroes The Apathists (alongside Mike Bartlett, Duncan Macmillan, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and many others), you most likely know him from 2011’s mirror teeth or the all-too-brief run of Sand at the Royal Court in 2013.

But it’s the context of 2014’s fiji land that’s initially most interesting. Written earlier than the others, it was a finalist in Amnesty International’s ‘Protect The Human’ New Writing Award, and as adaptor of Kafka’s The Trial at the Young Vic, he seems to be coming back to a regular theme. We meet just around the corner from where he works, and he amiably shoots down my presumptions:

“It isn’t really about bureaucracy. It’s funnier than you’re led to believe. There’s loads of coded sex puns that seem to be based in the sort of porn that he and his literary friends would have been into. It’s very weird.

“It’s not a parable like 1984, it’s not a criticism of existing or potential terrifying social structure. In this interpretation it’s more of a manifestation of his own psychological problems, more of a study of a bloke than it is a study of the state as a structure. It’s kind-of the story of an existential mid-life crisis.”

However, Gill does understand the problematic ‘legend’ that’s built up around the story, and Kafka in general.

“Kafka had the ‘horrible honour’ of writing just before the Holocaust, and it seemed horribly prescient at the time. It’s probably just coincidence. There’s a weird amount of literary criticism that just seems to credit him with being psychic.

“You end up with the weird choice of do you stick with what you think is interesting because you’ve misunderstood it, or do you go for a better understood but maybe less interesting version.

The Trial is vague enough that it needn’t be about anything in particular. Part of the reason that it’s carried on being popular and useful is that it’s fragmentary and unfinished, so you have a lot of lee-way to dick around with it.’

It’s probably fair to say that he doesn’t feel he’s operating in the shadow of past versions of The Trial:

“I saw the [1970] film version, the Steven Berkoff one, which was… okay. It’s pretty weird. Richard [Jones, the director] made me watch it and said ‘Don’t do this’.

But he describes the process of adaptation itself as “horrifying”.

“The sort of shit I tend to write you sit in your room, bang it out, then throw it out of the window and hope that someone wants it. … Lots of people will want to tell you what’s wrong with it and what’s right with it, and of course you’ve got this weird dead ghost over your shoulder and making sure that you’re being faithful to what he wanted to do.

“You can blame the bad bits on the book and take credit for the good bits. But even if I fucking massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive. You’ve got to fuck it up sometimes to know what you’re doing right.”

I occasionally get vexed about the number of new writers (most recently Macmillan and Dawn King, and of course Simon Stephens) who are being commissioned for adaptations rather than original plays, and I ask Gill if I’m being altogether reasonable:

“If you’re running the sort of theatre that I’d like to get involved with you’re treading a very fine line between wanting to make ‘art’, keeping your audience happy, and making enough money that you can carry on putting your next show on. It’s a good middle-ground. You can’t really alternate doing crazy, wacky stuff with crowd-pleasing musicals that run for years, because then your theatre has no identity.

“If you’re going out to the theatre you want to have some idea that you’re going to watch something good. And no writer’s great all the time (except for Mike Bartlett, damn his eyes). If you want to do a big original main-house show then I’m probably not the person you’d come to.”

And has that person (or artist, whatever) changed much from the days of throwing plays out of windows?

“I think I’m still basically writing the same weird little things that I was then. If I had had this idea myself it would have spiralled out and basically have been about me going crazy in a room trying to write an adaptation of The Trial. It would’ve been terrible.

“I’m not a big fan of realism as a mode – it doesn’t do a lot for me. I think the audience want some understanding from the people they’re watching that they [the performers] are being watched, that ‘a bit of theatre is happening’.

“There are so many media these days that can immerse you properly in something, but I have never had that experience in a theatre. I think that if you’re going to be a successful or interesting writer, you’ve got to do something that embraces the medium.

“About ten years ago when I was working at the bar at the Royal Court and buying as many cheap plays as I could, you could just read them like they were novels, and I got very annoyed with it – if you can sit down and read it, what’s the point of putting it onstage?

“For this one I didn’t write any stage directions, for the same reason – I’d much rather just make some ‘stuff’ for a director to play around with, and I’m slowly paring every little thing, down to capital letters and punctuation. I want to make it as neutral as possible. I’d rather just give you a vague atmosphere and then you can make it up. Scene I: Trepidation. Next!”

And it sounds like he’s found kindred spirits on his current show. As well as Rory Kinnear (who rather adorably asked for the playing age of Josef to be bumped up), Director Richard Jones shares his abstract approach:

“Richard is very good at that sort of stuff. I think I’m quite language-heavy and he downplays it a lot, and always says that he’s not very good at understanding words and that he just makes pretty pictures onstage.

“I don’t think it finally made it in, but there’s a scene with a tattooist, and I suggested we might try Japanese-style tattooing, and Richard said ‘I don’t think that’s going to read onstage, we’ll have to go for a western tattoo gun, but the tattooist will have a giant hand, of course’. I would never have written the stage direction TATTOOIST HAS GIANT RIGHT HAND.”

This affection for the ‘process’ seems to go to the heart of Gill. He’s also a spectacularly talented type-founder (we’re meeting on his lunch break – you might say he’s come straight from the type-face) and has a profound respect for ‘shared industry’:

“I don’t think [theatre] is collaboration, it’s just lots of different lenses of things. You stick a play in one end and people bend it off in different directions and that’s fantastic. It seems unlikely you can do that with a film.”

Finally, because I’m boring, I have to ask whether the original ‘band’ (responsible for the early incarnations of, amongst others, Bartlett’s Bull and Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing) might ever get back together.

“Give it another ten years when at least one of us has died of a freakish drug overdose. There was never any pressure to make it ‘good’ before. It would be nice, though.”

The Trial is at the Young Vic, London, until 22nd August. Photo: Keith Pattison.

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Duncan Gates

Duncan trained on the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and under Stephen Jeffreys at RADA. He's been longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize (2013), the Verity Bargate Award (2013), Channel 4/Touchpaper TV's Coming Up scheme (2014) and the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot Commissions (2014). He's had plays on all over the shop. In an ideal world he'd be an anthropomorphic bird who solves supernatural crimes.

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