The Trial

Roma Street Parkland (GNT2)


By Franz Kafka

Professional production

Just because you’re not paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

The theme of anonymous and unjustified persecution has been common in western European literature for over a hundred years, but it really began with Franz Kafka (1883–1924), to the extent that the term Kafkaesque has become part of the cultural lexicon in most western countries.

Yes, later writers like Orwell, Huxley and Pinter built upon Kafka’s vision of the impenetrable bureaucratic nightmare that is modern life, but the sheer intensity of the horror and lack of answers in Kafka’s work has never been equalled, not even by Josef Conrad.

“Couldn’t read it for its perversity,” said Albert Einstein after returning one of Kafka’s novels unread, and certainly The Trial, which began life in 1914 as a novel but has here been adapted for the stage by Jason Klarwein for GNT2 (Grin’n’Tonic in its new manifestation), is not a comfortable work.

Joseph K, a middle-level banker, has to defend himself against charges that are never specified, and is subjected to humiliation and alienation by mindless, illogical bureaucratic officials, who are just `doing their job’. Where have we heard that defence before? Every student of history, every worker in a bureaucratic system, everyone who lived in Queensland in the 1970s, will respond immediately to the grim realisation that there is no logic in the way human beings organise their world, and that there is no such thing as justice.

It’s a dark vision indeed, but Jason Klarwein has sensibly condensed the novel into a 75 minute play that is just long enough to convey the tedium and frustration, but not long enough to drive us screaming from the theatre.

The outdoor setting in the Amphitheatre in the Roma Street Parklands, where we were all seated under cover with braziers to keep us warm, couldn’t have been more atmospheric. The sporadic howling of the wind caused us to jump with fear, the shrieking of the bats as they flew in for their nightly feast was straight out of a horror movie, and the dark all-encompassing gardens added to the sense of isolation.

I counted more than 30 characters in the play, played by (I think) only eight actors, who have honed to perfection GNT’s usual skills of rapid costume changes, physical metamorphoses and facial eccentricities. The scenes are all very short, so the actors have to come on and off rapidly in different roles, manipulating the three mobile door/window flats to suggest countless locations, but somehow managing to give the action a satisfying structure that belied the philosophical vision of chaos that lies behind the plot.

There’s really nobody to single out from the cast, because although their skills are on different levels what Queensland actor can compete with Bryan Nason as a sinister old man? they all have the versatility to make each of their multiple characters immediately recognisable. Jason Klarwein, who plays Josef K, and Vanja Matula in an astonishing variety of roles, have been working with Nason long enough to have absorbed his intensely-argued theatrical philosophy, but by adding a younger vision, they have given us a production which, although sometimes rough around the edges, conveys the essence of this deeply troubling work very satisfactorily.

As T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”, and an hour and a bit were just about enough for me. Much as I appreciated the skill of the adaptation, the talent of the actors and the chilling horror they were able to portray, I was glad to get home in time for the latest episode of The Bill where, when a toe-rag gets nicked, you know exactly why, and can trust that justice will usually prevail.

Directed by Vanja Matula and Jason Klarwein

Playing at 7pm from Tuesday to Saturday until 9 July 2005

Running time: 75 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 1st July 2005)