The Trial

The Trial
Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka. Produced by Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Melbourne and ThinIce Perth. Director: Matthew Lutton. Set: Claude Marcos. Lighting: Paul Jackson. Wharf Theatre, Sydney until October 16. Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth - October 23 – 30.

One of the most disturbing and influential novels of the 20th century, Franz Kafka’s The Trial is no easy candidate for stage adaptation. Unfinished at the time of its 40 year old author’s death from tuberculosis in 1925, the novel follows an increasingly desperate year in the life of Josef K. as he fights a nameless charge against him through the corrupt and uncaring Austro-Hungarian courts.

With dozens of characters and multiple locations to synthesise, playwright Louise Fox and director Matthew Lutton present their adaptation as a 120-minute free-flowing nightmare peopled by Josef (Ewen Leslie) and six hard-working actors who spin, sprint, change genders, strip, smooch and emote at breakneck speed.

The trouble with dreams — let alone nightmares — is their lack of logic. Events can tumble one after the other, often at random, as they do here. Kafka’s Josef struggles to find the bureaucratic logic behind his very real predicament. But it’s hard to sympathise with Fox and Lutton’s Josef, to fully participate with his thought processes when, at any second, almost anything might happen, any character might morph into almost anyone. Who’d have thought, for instance, that four people might suddenly appear wearing obviously-fake Abraham Lincoln beards?

The novel’s undercurrent of sexuality is here delivered as a flood. The two admirable female performers (Rita Kalnejais and Belinda McClory) are regularly down to their undies and dedicated to wide-open-mouthed kissing, sometimes with each other.

The determinedly plain, curtained setting features Josef’s sparse rented room on a revolve that gathers rotations as the nightmare intensifies. Round and round (and round) it spins with the cast lurking, spying behind the doors, often barely dressed, sometimes roaring and frenzied as in a Punch and Judy Show. Interestingly, exactly the same effect was achieved at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre for their recent production of Measure For Measure: madly spinning, trashed rooms are in the Zeitgeist. The extra ambition of set designer Claude Marcos is revealed at the end when all curtaining and carpeting have been removed to show the impressive starkness of his towering, unpainted panelling.

Likeable and baffled, Ewen Leslie is on the run throughout. The vastly experienced John Gaden plays many cross-gender characters with conviction, especially a kindly priest who offers Josef a sympathetic sermon. Peter Houghton impresses as, among others, a distraught long-term litigant who has already engaged and sacked five unhelpful lawyers.

Excellent music by Ash Gibson Greig adds to Kelly Ryall’s very full, often very loud, soundscape that even backs some scenes with a TV-style laugh track. Is it only Josef who can hear this fake laughter? ‘I am going to be a free man,’ he declares. But first he must wake from his spiralling dream.

Frank Hatherley

Photo: Jeff Busby

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