Having just run across Oxford in order to catch the first showing of The Trial at the Burton Taylor Studio, I was quite flustered as I took my seat and watched the play’s action begin to unfold. It became clear during the play that I was not the only one, with others in a similar state not because of the exertion of a cross-town sprint but by the physicality of the play’s direction and the sharp tension created by the actors. It is this torrid fluidity and grinding sense of entrapment that best characterize the Steven Berkoff adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, directed by Sam Ward.
The play follows the story of Josef K, the chief officer of a bank, beginning when two mysterious agents arrest him for an unspecified crime he did not commit. Though he is not detained, he instantly feels the effects of the invisible tug and pull of the justice system that he, wrapped up in a contradictory spiral of bureaucracy and lack of information, is forced to deal with. K, played by the impressive Alex Shavick, tries desparately to make sense of a world that now that labels him as one of the ‘accused’. Indeed Shavick is the only constant character, and his fellow cast fluidly transform when needed into characters, chorus, and even props.
At first the performance felt overly exaggerated: the temptress too seductive, the lawyer too forceful, and, especially, the protagonist too helpless; but it was not long before it was apparent that these aspects were to the play’s favour, and it was not long before the absurd progression convinced me it deserved to be described as Kafkaesque. Once sucked into K’s plight we experience his gut-wrenching and pinball-like journey directly beside him, and can enjoy the way Ward has crafted this story into one that induces fear, confusion, and entertainment. We are treated to a brief moment of comic relief when Josef visits the artist Titorelli, played by an imposing Matt Broomfield, takes K on a whirling explanation of the backwards legal system using the other actors, all of whom, especially Jy Hoh (despite his excessive use of a wooden stick to imitate a whip) and Chelsea White, impressed both in their many roles as well as generally as a unit. The only major criticism of the play was that owing to its impressive versatility and flow, mistakes such as mistimed lines or clunky choreography, though hardly enough even to warrant a mention, stuck out like a sore thumb.
In short, this production of The Trial is an engaging piece of theatre that had me at once bewildered and enthralled. Don’t miss it.