Howard Colyer’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is certainly ambitious; adapting a technically unfinished Russian novel into a 60 minute one-man show is a feat that requires being succinct yet dense, nuanced but bold, and definitely paradoxical. Joseph K sits in a grid-tiled cell block, his name carved over and over and over again onto every possible surface of his cell. He addresses the walls, as he seems to have done every day for the past year, with the same words: ‘Somebody must have maligned Joseph K because he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.’ In this world that Joseph K lays out for us – of men arresting him without a charge and demanding to take his finest clothes, and lawyers providing legal advice that comes too late and trial that is not a trial – it is most fascinating that Joseph K chooses to argue that he has been maligned. Smeared, libeled – not wrongly accused, not framed, but painted as malicious. And on the day of his execution, the day the audience becomes part of his cell walls, he is only interested in being given a fair trial and breakfast.
What gets me most about this obsession with breakfast and malignment is that Joseph K is so obsessed with being treated with human decency when others would obsess over innocence. As Joseph K walks himself through the encounters with one authority figure after another, from a panting overweight judge to a diseased and withering lawyer (portrayed with great physicality by Brendan O’Rourke), we’re walked through his story as if we’re the jurors listening to the events of a crime rather than his cell wall confidante. Whereas I followed the narrative being fascinated with the legal absurdity and paradoxes in each step, Joseph K again and again insists that he has been misrepresented, that he must be good as well as innocent. His goodness, his sense of self, is what he clings to when the system around him includes a trial without a trial. He asks, ‘Has the law done this to me?’ This Joseph K is the human being in the absurd machine when the absurd has been normalised; there is no use in trying to fix it, but maybe there is hope in salvaging oneself.
One of the delicious possibilities of this one-man show is the possibility that the story he is telling us is not true or not entirely true. The glint in his eye as he tells us euphemistically of his sexual encounters with various women reveals (among other things) his ability to play with truth. I felt I was being teased to dig deeper into the possibility of multiple truths, but if this is where the play wanted to go, it was never pushed further. Given the fact that The Trial is in the same family of works as Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (in which the magic number for the age at which one is shoved into societal absurdity and death is also 30), Existentialist philosophy, and perhaps Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, it seemed odd that this aspect of absurdity of the self and of truth fizzled out.
In another paradox of its own, the production often shows us absurdity but doesn’t let us feel it. From Joseph’s perspective, this is because it is not the man who is absurd but the world in which he lives. The show is presented to us in the programme as a contemplation of ‘the events which have driven him to the brink of insanity’, but I see a man struggling to reason within an insane system. Instead of an insane man in a sensible system, Joseph K wants to demonstrate that he is an everyman dealing with an absurd system. We can only watch Joseph K as he loses his sense of self all the more he clings to it. He holds onto his name, repeating it as if to make sure it won’t disappear from the walls around him. Yet with just a name, who is Joseph K? Does the name make the self? When selfhood has been taken away from you, along with any semblance of reason, then clinging to the emptiness of your name on cell walls makes more sense than it should.
Since Joseph K is mostly a name, a human dragged through these governmental systems, there is plenty of room for projection and self-insertion. And while the show could certainly stretch the boundaries of absurdity from the original narrative much further, it has done well to represent instead that desire and need to feel deserving of human kindness and decency even when the system is not designed for it.