RW: The Trial, sociologically

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.

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4 thoughts on “RW: The Trial, sociologically

  1. This production was a disaster, Jana. The level of critical engagement wasn’t there at all, as you seem to realise. Which left me wondering why you liked it so much. I’m still a bit baffled.

    You said:

    “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.”

    I giggled at the tendentiousness of this comment. In fact, I began my review by quoting David Foster Wallace’s essay on Kafka. The production didn’t fail because it wasn’t funny enough, I’d argue. It failed because wasn’t funny in ways that acknowledge the humour comes, not from Kafka’s gallows humour (played here as excruciating laugh lines), but from a deeper place – Jozef’s complicity in the trial process.

    Jozef is guilty, as Kundera suggests and this production does not show, REGARDLESS of what he has been charged with, if anything. That’s why The Trial is (or should be) seriously funny.

    • Jana says:

      Hello Cameron! I have to say, I often wonder what you would write if you had more ample word allowance for your Age reviews. I completely allow for the possibility that I’ve been misunderstanding your taste all along (I certainly had a sense that you wouldn’t appreciate The Trial beforehand, and my sense was that it would be due to the lack of seriosity). But, while I completely agree with you on the main points here:
      – no understanding of the work shown (let alone critical)
      – no awareness of Jozef’s complicity in the trial process,
      there was no way to pick that out of the short published version of your review. And, unfortunately, the context of the DFW quote must had been shorn by the sub, because it was hard to get a sense of what you were implying by it. So, in a long-winded way, this is an apology for misunderstanding, which was unintended.

      But, while I don’t think The Trial is the best theatre in Australia, I didn’t find it offensively bad, the way many have. I really enjoyed the humour – unlikely a few people I’ve spoken to since, I thought it was genuinely funny (the way Elizabeth, for example, was not). I also thought, throughout the show, that it would be a good production to take teenagers to. Perhaps understandably, since the director is barely out of his teens..?

      I wonder, actually, to what extent the outrage has to do with the stature of the writer, and our own assumptions. Just as an example, last year in Sydney I saw the Icelandic Metamorphosis, which I thought was terribly, predictably Nazi-themed, and which everyone else loved for the gravity it gave to Gregor’s paranoias. Perhaps it was because of that show that I enjoyed a silly Trial? The other factor of disagreement, I think, is that I generally prefer interestingly-minded over good productions, which means my net always catches a number of shows that are only interesting by accident, not design. I’d like to defend my position of liking them, even if I don’t necessarily think it’s the author’s merit that they work (for me).

      There was one show, earlier this year, at Melbourne City Baths, which I was terribly intrigued by, but am still not sure it’s any good at all.

  2. Oh! I saw that too. The show was called “Waterproof”, and was intriguing indeed.

    Here’s my draft review (I’ll put it on the blog sooner or later):

    Waterproof is an innovative stage dive into uncharted waters. A performance in and around a pool at the Melbourne City Baths, the idea sprang from synchronised swimming lessons attended by its creator, Marita Fox.

    Fox cites as influences for her theatre aquatic such writers as Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath and Oliver Sacks. All three deal, from different angles, with the crisis of the drowning mind, but it’s Beckett who looms largest – particularly his later dramatic shorts with their sinister, expressionistic treatment of voices radically fragmented by trauma.

    The show is primarily physical theatre with a poetic voice-over. It opens with five performers – Anthony Couroupis, Marita Fox, Kasia Kaczmarek, Tristan Meecham and Alice Robinson – squashed into a poolside cubicle. All you can see is their feet beneath the door.

    Cubicles frame most of the out-of-pool action. The circumscribed form of the ‘swinging door’ farce powers a kind of apocalyptic clowning that unfolds into potent suggestions of drama.

    Vaguely distressing, backlit scenes of life and death are played out. A hitman hesitates. A woman presents and discards what might be a foetus. A blind, mute figure alternately sinks and swims, the black tendrils of his mind splayed out across the water in the show’s visceral final image.

    Some of the voice-work is more affectless than it needs to be, though I’m sure this is deliberate. And while the in-pool scenes wouldn’t pass muster in a synchronised swimming comp, there’s a creative intelligence behind them that harnesses the metaphorical power of water to suggest consciousness in a state of flux.

    Waterproof is an enigmatic theatrical experiment of considerable ingenuity.

  3. Jana says:

    I remember your review! It’s so good to have them online, though – they disappear before one can engage with them.

    I couldn’t connect the performance to Beckett, Plath or Sacks when I saw it, mainly I think because I experienced its material dimension above and beyond any other: the humidity of the space, the splashing of the water, and the understated strangeness, including the deliberate affectlessness you mention. It reminded me of Alphaville and Tereza’s nightmares in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in both cases the sports swimming pool a scene for a totalitarian torture of physical bodies, but in which the bodies were already rendered slow and more inert by the water they moved through.

    Thinking about it now, perhaps it touched some childhood memory. Whichever way, I found the combination of external oppression, complicity (sport, diving in), undramatic slowness and this affectless goofiness of sorts (like Godard’s film, I found Waterproof to have an ironic touch that made it lightly funny) to be extraordinarily evocative.

    I’ve realised only yesterday that you have started a blog. Welcome! It’s a wonderful idea and, yes, it’s great to finally be able to have a conversation about shows like ‘Waterproof’, even months after they closed.

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