Given the fact that Kafka's writing is often sinister, oblique, verging on the absurd and always on the very cusp of the incomprehensible, it should not be surprising that various writers have been tempted to redefine and reconstruct it, a fashion that started almost as soon as his work was published, posthumously and against his instructions.
The Trial, in which an otherwise unremarkable man, Joseph K, is arrested for a crime that is never defined, either to him or to the audience, has been particularly susceptible to reinterpretation, with mixed results. Tom Basden's Joseph K was produced by The Gate Theatre in 2010 and succeeded in wringing the very last semblance of subtlety from an otherwise fascinating story in a depressing and ultimately unsatisfying comment on the modern obsession with banking, sushi and not much else besides.
On the other hand, Steven Berkoff's unflinching ability to mix emotional conflict and confusion with physical theatre becomes an excellent vehicle for Kafka's own sensibility, combining a fascination for the horror and absurdity of life. That Ella Vale, the director of this entertaining production, trained as a dancer should come as no surprise and she has made good use of the opportunities for physical transformation and visual jokes that a cast of five performing twenty-two roles between them must grab if they are to have any chance of holding the audience for longer than it takes to tie a shoelace.
And they do it well. The ensemble cast create both a chorus and defined characters, moving between the two gracefully, eased by the jazzy hiss of cymbals delivered with a knowingly ironic wink, signifying the beginning and end of each chapter as well as being an intelligent nod towards Bob Fosse and his leering, jeering creations.
There is an undefined, twilight zone context to this production, the set and props being entirely minimal and closely replicating Berkoff's original design. The unadorned black set is punctuated by white frames; doors that lead anywhere and nowhere and boxes which offer neither a safe place to hide from the world nor a useful place to imprison anyone, their sides as penetrable and transparent as the air.
Likewise, Hannah Gibbs' costumes prevent the characters from being placed in any real here and now. They are resolutely and self-consciously costumes rather than the clothes of the bankers, lawyers and carpenters they are variously required to belong to. The cast all look like the bell hops in a seedy Paris hotel, part waif, part clown and in this, the production is weak. Vale, in her programme notes, states she wants her production to 'confirm nothing', yet by refusing to give any sense of who or at least why these characters exist, she comes close to leading the production to the abyss of meaninglessness.
The first half is fluid and inoffensive, playing to the absurd side of both Kafka and Berkoff's writing rather than to the tragic and confused. The pace is more a music hall romp, veering dangerously towards the cliched, than the slow closing of the net. It is strangely lacking in tension; even as Joseph K is arrested and struggles to penetrate the deadening bureaucracy which confronts him, we are left with no racing pulse, no sense of injustice, not even bemusement. It is too styled and trite, too removed from any particular reality to serve either the play or its characters.
Luckily, the second half comes into its own. The pace shifts up a gear and the unpleasant sense of slowly increasing threat finally makes itself evident, in large part due to Derek Elwood's excellent performance as Huld, Joseph K's bewilderingly insane, threatening and bizarrely incontinent lawyer. He is both comic and terrifying, his absolute engagement with the legal system he operates within finally giving the production some badly needed conviction, so that by the time K reaches the end of his story we have experienced with him the frustrations of attempting to negotiate with the shadowy, all-seeing forces whose purposes he can only guess at and never reason with.
By the final scene we have seen enough of Joseph K's genuine bewilderment to make his execution aptly moving. The profound absurdity of the play, and of human existence, is perfectly encapsulated as he finally realises he is begging for his life and calls out to the nameless Priest, resolutely refusing to take confession with the angry cry 'I'm not guilty!'. It is to this production's credit that it succeeds in making clear the obvious reply to this plea, never articulated but implied in so many ways, and lets it ring out, accusing us all with the grim and horrifying question 'Ah, but how do you know for certain?'.