Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow,
At King’s Theatre, Edinburgh,
February 3 & 4
Reviewed by Mark Brown
When it comes to adapting prose fictions for the stage there can, surely, be few works that present more formidable challenges than Franz Kafka’s great psycho-political novel The Trial. When they transformed the book into an opera (for Music Theatre Wales in 2014), American minimalist composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton were joining an honourable tradition that includes Steven Berkoff’s acclaimed 1970 theatre version.
It isn’t difficult to see the attraction of the novel for dramatists of various kinds. Kafka’s story of Josef K, a middle-ranking bank worker who is arrested on charges that are never disclosed remains one of the most frighteningly resonant novels in world literature.
Written during the First World War, it is a bleakly comic, almost surreal portrait of an unaccountable, inhumane, bureaucratic state. Like George Orwell’s 1984, it stands as one of the great premonitory art works of the 20th century.
This Scottish premiere (co-produced by Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera, London and German company Theater Magdeburg) reminds us that Glass’s piece, which the composer calls “a pocket opera”, is inherently paradoxical. In rendering The Trial as a stage drama, Glass and Hampton seek to create a performance work out of an intensely psychological novel.
All of which places a particular burden on the show’s designer Simon Banham. How to represent the impact upon the mind of Josef K of a Byzantine state and its labyrinthine legal system?
Banham opts, reasonably enough, for a minimal set (a “pocket” design, if you will). The entire story is told from within Josef’s non-descript bedsit in which items of clothing appear through gaps in the walls and police officers emerge from within a cupboard.
There is, in director Michael McCarthy’s production, an appropriate sense of early-twentieth century absurdist theatre. The cops who arrest Josef look, in their bowler hats and handlebar moustaches, as if they could have stepped out of a play by Eugene Ionesco.
Josef himself is played superbly by Australian baritone Nicholas Lester. The richness of his voice combines fascinatingly with his estimable height to expresses and embody the seeming self-worth and certainty of a middle-class functionary.
It is a perfect mask for the character’s human fragility. This is Josef as a conventionally upright, decent man who is, apparently, appalled by the moral and sexual degeneracy he discovers in the legal bureaucracy; a characterisation that is all the more effective given his abundant susceptibility to the sexual temptations his trial puts in front of him.
Lester is supported by an excellent cast, not least Emma Kerr as the dissolute washerwoman and Gwion Thomas as the debased Lawyer Huld.
Glass’s music is intriguing in its diversity. In one moment, its instantly recognisable repetitions and variations reflect the seeming pettiness of the situation; an innocent bank clerk caught up in a, surely to be quickly resolved, case of mistaken identity.
However, in the moments when the universality of Kafka’s theme becomes most apparent, and we see in the state what Hannah Arendt would later call “the banality of evil”, the score takes a radically different tone. Blasts from wind instruments burst through the harmonic interplay between keyboards and strings creating moments of discordance that speak both to Josef’s personal panic and the immense political danger his plight represents.
The production, inevitably, cannot match the psychological intensity of the novel, and one can’t help but feel that Banham’s ingenious set loses in thematic scale what it gains in claustrophobia. That said, it draws enough upon Kafka’s genius, and upon the brilliance of Glass and Hampton, to create a rewarding evening’s opera.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 29, 2017
© Mark Brown