In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, civil servant Sam Lowry is thrown into a nightmare of festering, self-fuelling bureaucracy when an innocent man is killed by the accidental jamming of a fly in the machinery of a printing array, changing a single letter from ‘T’ to ‘B’. A single typographical error, a single misplaced character, spirals out of control and consumes Lowry’s life. Gilliam’s masterpiece, clearly and gleefully indebted to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, could almost be the jumping-off point for this radical new adaptation by Nick Gill. Himself a professional letterpress printer as well as playwright, few can know or care more about the value and the weight of words.
Neither Josef K nor his accusers ever settle on a crime to pin to him, yet he’s dragged into the bizarre machinery of the state regardless, and Gill’s brilliant innovation is to run the benighted man’s internal monologues through a similar typographic shredder. Josef speaks in a broken language of misspellings and omissions, his life has been crucially but invisibly compromised and now its logics and ambitions fail like sentences on a neglected printing press.
It’s a true masterstroke, and in its melding of diverse professional expertise it feels a unique and appropriate one too, and crucially it provides the superb Rory Kinnear with strange and broken flights of poetry to get his teeth into. Kinnear is the off-kilter dynamo of the play, and his sweat and spittle-streaked performance heaves and frets at its centre. He’s at once an identifiable everyman thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and an ordinary fool that has taken too much of his life for granted and whose footing is all too vulnerable. By making Josef’s own internal monologue the play’s most indecipherable element, the machinery he is meshed inside seems all too credible, its victory all but assured.
Gill’s other major divergence from Kafka’s text is far riskier, in his foregrounding of illicit sex in Josef’s paranoid struggle. In what feels like a queasy nod to the shadow of Yewtree, there are constant suggestions that the unnamed crime is sexual in nature, that there is a whiff of the paedophilic and abusive about it. These ideas are far from alien to Kafka’s text, but combined with the distinctly 70’s costume and set designs (we’re coming to that, don’t you worry), the never-ending series of bedrooms, the ambiguous age of plaid-wearing and demented temptress Cherry (the brilliant Kate O’Flynn in one of several perfectly performed roles) can’t help but bring to mind dawn raids on old and powerful men who believed their lives were in perfect order. Kafka’s Trial famously includes no trial at all, but a series of nightmarish encounters with lawyers, clerks and the general public. It is in the court of popular opinion that Josef is most comprehensively racked, and so it is for Kinnear. Gill seems to use The Trial to sound a note of caution in the media and the public’s willingness to swallow up lives before or without the mediation of a true courtroom.
Bulging with good-stuff, then. Smart and timely and inventive in form and content, swirling around Kinnear at his desperate best. What’s the issue? What could possibly go wrong? Put simply, it’s Richard Jones and Miriam Buether. Gill’s text is a little overlong and it expects a lot from its audience, but it’s the bloated and un-engaging production that holds The Trial back from brilliance and comes close to clogging its engine altogether. In design and realisation its closest twin is the earlier Jones/Buether collaboration A Government Inspector, but where that rancid day-glo weirdness felt the perfect compliment to Gogol’s acidic provincial farce, here it’s at best a little distracting, and at worse frankly monotonous.
Buether’s love of reconfiguring spaces with chipboard is on display again, but instead of the hunting hides of GAME here the audience is massed in a quasi-traverse-configured courtroom. A huge orange keyhole hangs over a long conveyor belt, where rooms, doors, props and characters wheel into view like luggage in some over-lit airport in the middle of the night. At first it’s heaps of fun in a sort of slow-mo Fuerzabruta, as Kinnear crosses from room to room via doors and corridors that whip past him, and desks, beds and porcelain dogs appear onstage as if by magic. But two hours is a long time to watch a conveyor belt, and before long you begin to feel more like a customs official than a jury, as the mechanical whirring of the belt’s motors drones on between each scene.
It’s so comprehensively over-engineered, its visual language owing more to a pop culture digestion of Kafka than the real tone or content of his novel, or of Gill’s adaptation. It swings at junky, over-saturated surrealism and lands squarely at tacky and try-hard. The cast strain to make an impact over their loud costumes and their even louder set, but the sensation is akin to re-watching Logan’s Runor Soylent Green on a Saturday afternoon. The cool stuff is still cool, the smart bits are still smart, but picking through the sluggish pace and unconvincing aesthetic is so much harder and less rewarding than it should be.
For Buether, it’s still nowhere near the cluster-fuck of Wild Swans, the worst and most self-defeating stage design I have ever seen, but it’s miles behind her best work, and coupled with Jones’ cluttered direction, all but buries an intriguing adaptation and ferocious central performance.
Exeunt’s interview with Nick Gill:”Even if I fucking massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive.”