Who knows what the poor soul in The Trial is being accused of. Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel, following an arrested bank clerk, doesn’t tell us. Blurry specifics of the allegation draw attention instead to a legal establishment that alienates and intimidates the people living within it.
In Stacey Gregg’s ambitious and contemporary riff on Kafka’s tale for the Abbey Theatre, we find Josephine K (Orla Fitzgerald), a security analyst, being arrested at her flat. Adding insult to injury, a snide government agent sneers at her IKEA décor. Staged in the round, with the audience peering in, her privacy is invaded in more ways than one.
Director Caitríona McLaughlin’s production is artfully exposed, with Kate Moylan’s office set equipped with riveting reflections and illusions. The most transparent element is the casting of its sound designer, Carl Kennedy, as Algorithm, a character who, true to name, mimics human traits across multiple roles, from a court officer to an activist. Sonically, his ambient melodies fill the room as Josephine recalls the fallout of the financial crisis: protesting against a government that robbed a generation of its opportunities.
Gregg seems interested in people’s fear of authority, especially in this big data age. We see an Amazon phone operator trying to guess Josephine’s menstrual cycle based on her purchase history. The legal prosecution uses her web history to blemish her defence. Following modern logic, the trial evolves into a spectacle with its own hashtag – and online harassment.
For this production to be stirringly absurd, however, is a hard ask. McLaughlin take the script’s strangeness as signs of a screwball comedy where Fitzgerald’s bewildered Josephine should crawl clumsily under a desk to arrive at her all-important court hearing. She doesn’t exactly agonise with self-doubt, even though the production sends her up-close into the audience.
That seems like an attempt to warm up a play that’s cold as raw data. Spinning profound ideas into tighter drama may have provided some heat. Then this journey towards self-assurance would be believable; Josephine K knows she did nothing wrong.
Josephine K and the Algorithms is on until 21 October 2017 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.