I’m not going to lie to you, this is a tough one. The Young Vic has had a string of award-winning successes in the past 12 months leading to West End and now Broadway transfers. Understandably then, there is a buzz about the place these days and most shows sell out fairly quickly. This adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial was all but gone even before the press night so confident are audiences in the quality of Young Vic productions. And of course the lure of Rory Kinnear cannot be underestimated either. He’s an actor that’s been in everything, including roles in Bond and the recent Casual Vacancy on the BBC, and while he may not quite be a household name yet, is very highly regarded among theatre watchers – much as Benedict Cumberbatch used to be, and we all know how that turned out.
The Trial is a part absurdist, part-Brechtian, part-naturalistic drama about a totalitarian state that arrests Josef K a seemingly upstanding citizen one morning for an unspecified crime. But he’s not detained and while he awaits a series of hearing dates at ‘The Court’, Josef tries to discover what his crime has been and attends a number of surreal encounters with court officials and a potential lawyer while becoming increasingly famous for his unknown misdemeanour. There is a slim chance he could be set free but he must try to recall every bad deed he has ever committed which means filling out endless reams of yellow forms. Before long Josef discovers that a sure case of mistaken identity has taken over his entire life, but will he ever clear his name with the faceless Court?
The first thing you’ll notice as you enter the auditorium is the crazy design which has turned the Young Vic’s space into a giant orange courtroom with the audience seated in raked boxes facing each other. In the centre is a giant keyhole which rises up to reveal a treadmill on which the set is built underneath. It’s a neat way to imply the nature of this world based on secret observation although you might have to push pictures of David Frost and Lloyd Grosman from your mind as you muse on ‘who lives in a house like this’. The treadmill is clever way to move the action smoothly from scene to scene while implying a sense of inevitability in Josef’s story – once he’s set on this path it (somewhat literally) only goes in one direction.
But this is no 1984 and the audience is never allowed to get too close to the action, as well as being deliberately alienated from the central character by the language. In his monologue moments Josef speaks in a heightened way using ‘im’ and ‘ooo’ to refer to himself which reminded me of a James Joyce style deliberately intended to stop you feeling too much sympathy for him as we almost clinically observe his decline. This is the most challenging aspect of the play which clearly made it difficult for some members of the audience to understand what was going on. If straightforward, naturalistic theatre is your preference then this may not be an easy thing to watch, and would probably suit you better if you prefer more alternative and surreal styles.
On the whole the acting is extremely good and while your engagement with the plot can falter (and certainly did for a lot of people) there are some great performances. Rory Kinnear is of course superb as Josef, expertly plotting his increased frenzy as the process of discovering his crime begins to take over his entire life. Kinnear’s previous work, including a wonderfully malevolent Iago at the National in 2013, has created a great sense of expectation around his stage appearances, so it seems timely that he should join forces with the equally trendy Young Vic. In Kinnear’s performance you also get the sense that Josef was himself once a faceless man, trundling absently through life and working in a bank, making no mark on the world, but the layers of bureaucracy that suddenly make him famous are impossible to manage. The distancing of the audience means we never really get to know Josef and this story becomes a faceless man taking on a faceless system.
Kate Flynn is also excellent playing a number of key women in Josef’s life including the neighbour he is in love with and a school girl assistant to the lawyer who falls for him, as well as a stripper (who is too obviously wearing flesh coloured shorts) entertaining him as the play opens. If the text is making a point about the facelessness of these women who possibly in Josef’s mind all look the same, it is never made entirely clear but certainly suggests the interchangeability of the individual. There’s also a decent cast of additional characters who are all part of this treadmill of bureaucracy from Bogart-esque people in macs who are not even slightly scary to surreal court officials talking administrative nonsense and Josef’s bustling bank colleagues.
It does suffer from projection problems with the sound of the treadmill and the music periodically obscuring the dialogue, especially when the actor is facing away from you, which certainly doesn’t help audience engagement. While the acting is good and there is the germ of an engaging story at times, it is a hard piece to appreciate. Part of that this heightened brightly coloured world feels as though it’s trying too hard to be full of metaphor and meaning, which combined with the arms-length feel of the production creates a tension between wanting us to understand and pushing us away, thus making it difficult for some people to stay awake, never mind keep the story and themes straight long enough to form an opinion on whether they enjoyed it.
There’s some good stuff here in both the use of innovative techniques and yet another complete transformation of the Young Vic space. Rory Kinnear is certainly marvellous and probably deserves an award for maintaining 2 straight hours on stage, but ultimately something is not quite coming together here and you don’t leave mulling over the injustice of this state or being suitably warned about the over-systematisation of government. Although it was practically sold out before it opened, I have a feeling some of those pre-sales will regret their hasty purchase, so if it sounds like your thing returns will probably be fairly easy to come by. It’s not dreadful by any means but is likely only to suit particular theatre tastes, and not quite as engrossing as other recent Young Vic successes.
The Trial is at the Young Vic until 22nd August. Tickets are from £19-£35.
NB: An alternative version of this review from the press night performance was previously published on The Public Reviews website. The review above refers to a separate performance.