Theatre review: The Trial at the Young Vic

Sian Thomas (Mrs Grace) and Hugh Skinner (Block) in The Trial at the Young Vic. Picture: Keith Patti

Sian Thomas (Mrs Grace) and Hugh Skinner (Block) in The Trial at the Young Vic. Picture: Keith Pattison - Credit: Keith Pattison

This unemotional Kafka is a certainly a trial, says Marianka Swain.

Judgement is inescapable in Richard Jones’s punishing version of Kafka’s novel. Miriam Buether’s striking design makes the audience a voyeuristic jury, ranged on benches in the queasily lit courtroom, with the accused toiling before us on a rolling travelator. It’s an intriguing representation of this existentialist abyss – the hopeless fight against unstoppable forces – but interest wanes over a relentless yet oddly unmoving two hours.

On his 35th birthday, Josef K (Rory Kinnear) awakes to a living nightmare: agents invade his home and threaten him with arrest, but refuse to disclose his crime – that’s the purview of the mysterious court. K is plunged into a hell of labyrinthine bureaucracy and increasing humiliation and alienation.

Nick Gill’s adaptation creates a comprehensible dramatic shape out of Kafka’s fragments and astutely explores the slippery language of oppression, from “Everything belongs to the court” to the literal deconstruction of innocence: “e-no-sense”. However, potentially incisive commentary on the surveillance state and dubious anti-terrorism measures – K considers inventing a confession in the hope “it all goes away” – is limited by Gill’s sexual focus. K’s self-loathing stems from adolescent hormonal stirrings, and every woman is an object of guilty lust. It reduces a political classic to Freudian conjecture.

Kinnear is compelling as the bullish banker reduced to a desperate, sweating wreck, and lends conviction to the Joycean baby speak Gill employs as K’s inner voice. Kate O’Flynn is sensational in numerous parts, including an alarmingly persistent schoolgirl, and there’s good support from Hugh Skinner’s dehumanised supplicant and Sian Thomas’s smooth-talking lawyer.

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David Sawer and Alex Twiselton’s soundscape, featuring harsh organ music, jangling typewriter keys and a mocking laugh track, adds to the distorted reality. But Jones’s focus on stylish surrealism prevents this production from being either powerfully sinister or truly moving.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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