What is it?
Franz Kafka’s well-known novel of the trial of Jozef K. by an organisation he doesn’t know, for a crime he is not aware of, in a stage adaptation by Louise Fox. Directed by Matthew Lutton, the next wunderkind on the block: Lutton has directed a number of things in Perth, as the artistic director of his company, ThinIce, as a mainstay in the Perth Festival, has been regularly working in Sydney (including directing The Duel, based on Dostoyevsky, and The Mystery of the Genesis for STC in 2009), but has so far worked in Melbourne only once, in 2008, when he directed Tartuffe for the Malthouse, as a last-minute replacement for Michael Kantor. By and large, The Trial is his Melbourne debut.
Is it good?
Yes, very much so. I am tempted to call it a very Sydney kind of quality, but I won’t, lest it puts Melburnians off. It’s an exuberant, highly energetic production, which marries a great text (Fox’s adaptation is snappy, clear and often hilarious, without any lapses into unwarranted, un-Kafkan lyricism) with a great young team. The cast is excellent: Ewen Leslie’s abilities are not particularly stretched by the demands of his character, but Hamish Michael, Rita Kalnejais and in particular Belinda McClory (whom we don’t see in Melbourne often enough!) clearly revel in the chance to play a large number of roles, often within the same scene. It’s a very playful production, one that has more ideas than form or concept, but most of the time it’s an absolute joy to behold. In Melbourne, we often get bogged down in a terrible literal sourness: we like to condemn shows on ‘unevenness’, which often means an excess of ideas. Sydney is more forgiving of that, and also less interested in all those evenly boring productions that Melbourne abounds with at certain times of the year. I do recommend it, highly.
What does it do?
It amps Kafka up into a whirlwind of sexed-up, clamouring absurdity. Much of this effect is achieved through reduction: the novel is condensed into an intervalless 2-hour, single-set, rotating-box farce of a sort, in which seven actors embody a swirling panoply of characters. The uncertain paranoia of The Trial is given a perfect theatrical embodiment: recycling sets and actors is enough of a theatrical convention that the constant repetition of place and person strikes the audience as eerie and claustrophobic, but also, somehow, understandable. As the set is repeatedly stripped of stage props to reveal only more (bare-backed) set, it embodies without comment a conspiracy theory that both is and isn’t correct. After all, seeing through the illusion of reason rarely provides any consolation to Kafka’s characters.
More theoretically, please.
At times, this production is more hysterical than tragicomic, which leads me to believe that Lutton is not as familiar with his source material as one would wish. Franz Kafka’s world, immensely coherent across his oeuvre, is a world of mad bureaucracies. Long before Max Weber defined bureaucracy in sociology, Kafka’s protagonists were trapped in worlds run by nameless and faceless organisations, in which the person delivering the death verdict or the execution was merely following the orders of some distant superior, worlds in which the cogs turned seemingly by themselves, with no decision-making ever taking place, and no way to interfere.
A bank clerk in the Austria-Hungary, one of the earliest bureaucratised empires, Kafka knew the logic of this system well: in a bureaucracy, there is no discretionary power, no personal responsibility, and no accountability. While his work was often understood as a premonition of the industrialised execution of Jews in the Third Reich, and of the Soviet terror, it is just as applicable as an allegory of those capitalist sagas in which one wrestles with customer service, welfare agencies, call centres in India, or tries to extract personal responsibility from a corporation after an industrial catastrophe.
Bureaucracy is the basic form in which production takes place today – of goods, services, and governance. Kafka’s genius was in recognising and giving a literary life to the moral catastrophe that this state of affairs is. If nobody can be held responsible for anything, not even for violence, then tragedy cannot exist, because tragedy hinges on personal choice. What remains is a sort of tragicomedy, only partially legible to its protagonists: things happen that are sometimes terrible, sometimes fortunate, often simply funny. The difference between opaque and clear vanishes: to see through the conspiracy of the trial is no more meaningful than seeing through the conspiracy of the outsourced call centre: the reason why it exists is not the reason why it makes us suffer. The ultimate revelation is as banal as the exposed plywood set. We exit the realm of the tragic, and enter the statistic, the merely quantifiable, the heartlessly rational.
Kafka’s works are often phantasmagoric in a way which is deeply un-lyrical: his sentences are short, his words simple, his eye unsentimental. Yet by the end of this production, Jozef K. is sobbing hysterically, his death accompanied by a violent stage rotation and deeply distressed music, which leads me to believe that this crucial quality of Kafka’s work was completely missed by Lutton. In the end of the novel, remember, Jozef K. not only accepts his execution, but is embarrassed for not having the strength to perform his own execution. The very last sentence of the novel reads: “It was as if the shame of it would outlive him.” Why is this important? Because the former solution is easy; the latter more difficult. It is gratifying and safe to read the gulag in The Trial – a prophesy of evils we recognise as such, committed by people other than us, whom history has already condemned.
Kundera has repeatedly argued that Jozef K., right from the beginning of the novel, acts like a guilty man – which is to say, a man who internalises his accusation. To stage him as a heroic rebel is to miss the Kafkan subtlety altogether: Jozef K. is not so much a brave fighter for justice, as one who goes through the motions, deeply unsure of his own innocence when faced with the external consensus. This is the universal condition of the man before the Law; only action heroes and psychotics can disregard the Law completely (and there may be a psychotic lurking inside every action hero, if we are to trust Alan Moore). Jozef K is a man who believes in the world that executes him. This is the complication that makes Kafka a great writer. (It also makes me wonder how much more exciting Leslie’s performance could have been, had he had the freedom to play a morally torn man, rather than just a romantic misfit of sorts.)
However, Lutton abundantly makes up for this slightness of reading by the sheer exuberance of this production. It may be a work built on sheer instinct, but Lutton’s instincts are often spot on. Hyperbolic exaggeration (somewhat naively) restores some of the crucial elements often forgotten in the conventional interpretations of Kafka. For example, artist Titorelli’s CHECK young admirers, played by the entire male and female cast, are literally crawling into his studio through every door on stage, scratching the walls and cat-calling. This gesture befits the material perfectly: many gloomy interpreters of Kafka completely fail to notice the humour permeating his work, humour part-Jewish and part-Czech, absurd (but not clownish), black (but not bleak), and not so much self-deprecating as self-deriding. Lutton’s Trial has plenty of humour, of the best kind. The production is also brimming with a ridiculous eroticism: there are whippings and undergarments and sexy nurses everywhere. The usual reduction of Kafka to an ascetic priest-like creature is completely absent.
However, this re-interpretation opens up questions it doesn’t answer. It faithfully keeps the priest’s story of a man wishing to gain entry to the law (known as the ‘Before the Law’ parable, and the single most famous part of The Trial). However, not only does the parable sit awkwardly within the performance, suddenly shifting the register from grotesquely humorous to mystically simple. It also sits awkwardly within the novel itself. Why? Because it isn’t necessarily meant to be there. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend who posthumously compiled The Trial from the fragments of Kafka’s writings, was the person who made that decision. Brod, while a dear friend, was also the most famous misinterpreter of Franz Kafka, assigning him the status of saint, infamously purging his biography of evidence of brothel-attendance, and providing us with the first accounts of Franz as a spiritual, almost religious writer (Walter Benjamin would dismiss Brod’s interpretation as kitsch). “Before the Law” was the only part of The Trial to be published during Kafka’s life, as a separate short story. As such, it is a perfect little gem of brutal absurdism. As a penultimate chapter to a complex novel, it swings its overall tone strongly, perhaps too strongly, towards the mystic. It’s often taken to contain the essence of The Trial, but that probably has a lot to do with its crisp, succint tightness – as befits a short story. Lutton’s production, which greatly avoids the perfunctory mysticism, clearly doesn’t do it consciously enough to recognise these contradictions. (I will point out here that Cameron Woodhead, in his review in The Age, very predictably fails to understand the complexity of the issue, bemoaning the farce and praising the parable. As if seriousness, as opposed to humour, denotes Art.)
This lack of understanding is enough to bar The Trial from being called a masterpiece. It’s a youthful work, its flaws gaping open. However, as a young director’s work, it is among the best and most promising Melbourne has seen in a while. It shows a remarkable new talent, and a great theatrical instinct, in Matthew Lutton. It is also an absolute joy to attend: funny, crafty, and almost impeccably executed. Most importantly, as Alison Croggon picked up, there is an honest truth in this project, which alone makes it worth seeing. With no holding back, the artistic team has clearly catapulted itself right in the centre of a text and a problematic they may not quite have a grip on, but were determined to tackle with all their capacity. This refusal to play it safe is too rarely seen to be missed.
The Trial. Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 – October 16.