A review by Julia Gasper 4/11/2014
Kafka’s novel The Trial is deservedly a classic because it conveyed the overwhelming power of the modern state and the helplessness of the individual, caught up in the machinery of this monster.
There is no community, no society and no humanity in this all-powerful bureaucracy, just a sinister, pervasive control and endless rules that the human being will inevitably be punished for breaking. Often called surreal, Kafka’s story actually closely mirrors the experience of countless people crushed by totalitarian systems. His protagonist, Joseph K, wakes up one morning to find he is arrested by police, who refuse to tell him the charge. He must attend an endless succession of court hearings conducted according to inscrutable conventions, at mysterious locations, where he is told that he is always in the wrong and whatever he does prejudices his case more and more. Curiously enough, everybody else seems to know more about what is going on than he does. He is watched by indifferent bystanders, who jeer or ogle pityingly while he tries to make sense of this nightmare. His desperate attempts to find a lawyer and defend himself are ineffectual, fruitless and feeble in the face of the vast, impersonal state machine. Inevitably, he is doomed.
To bring this nightmare tale to the stage is hard enough, but to set it to music is a startling challenge, the latest taken on by cult American composer Philip Glass, using a libretto by Christopher Hampton. Fans of Glass from all over southern England were there at the Oxford Playhouse last night to hear Music Theatre Wales (in a co-production with the Royal Opera) perform this challenging and startling work. The music is eerie, uneasy and queasy, all of which is absolutely right for the story. It comes in wave-patterns, regular undulations, that pulse unceasingly, carrying us forward as if we were on a train, one that never pauses at any station. The rare moments when it does stop are so startling that we would not have the presence of mind to escape. We too are trapped. When it starts the orchestration is sparse, using single cellos and oboes, but it grows, until it reaches a climax with the strokes of a hammer on an anvil, like a terrible migraine in Joseph’s head.
Johnny Herford (baritone) in the lead as Joseph had to be on stage almost throughout and his rôle was very demanding. All the singers were good, and the acting of Paul Curievici (tenor) as the painter Titorelli, and Amanda Forbes (soprano) as Fraülein Bürtsner, stood out. The style of the production is sparse and sombre, almost all black and white, but never visually boring, with very effective stage action and groupings. There is a trace of grim humour now and then, and moments of hideous farce, as when the black-clad policemen turn out to be hiding in a cupboard. But all of this just makes the general tone even more sinister and adds to the intensity of the despair.
Music Theatre Wales is to be congratulated for a production that brings this important classic back to public attention and challenges us once more to listen to Kafka’s warnings.
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