New York Times writer Dan Kois popularised the phrase “eating your cultural vegetables” – the idea that you need to wade through challenging material you don’t necessarily enjoy to offset the times you feel like binging on candyfloss. For all its prophetic brilliance, Kafka’s The Trial would qualify on most people’s list of cultural vegetables: it’s a grind, and that’s sort of the point.
Despite popularist flourishes and impressive staging, Nick Gill’s adaptation for the Young Vic is a bit of a grind, too – and, I suspect, quite proud of the fact.
We first meet Joseph K, a middle-manager in a bank, after a heavy night out; he wakes up with that intense feeling of existential dread that comes to most of us on Saturday mornings. It’s made worse when he’s arrested and nobody will tell him why; he spends the rest of the play trying to hold his life together as an unfathomable bureaucratic nightmare unfurls around him.
Gill’s play is a very sexual take on the source material, homing-in on Joseph’s dalliances and fantasies, shining a fluorescent strip-light on them until they appear tawdry. In this production, Joseph’s crime – whether real or imagined – is most certainly carnal in nature, and the pervading sense of voyeurism is heightened by his frequent references to anonymous faces in the audience peering at him.
I suspect if Rory Kinnear, one of our finest actors, had a little more hair he’d be playing Iron Man or Jason Bourne by now. Hollywood’s loss is theatre’s gain – he puts in a tremendous performance as Joseph; we feel his exasperation as every decision he makes, every word he speaks, digs him deeper into the rut of his life. His confusion is echoed in his internal monologue, which is rendered in a kind of barely coherent pidgin English.
The staging is superb – seats are built around a long, thin conveyor belt, on which the accoutrements of life – doors, beds, filing cabinets – emerge from darkness. It’s a neat metaphor: a treadmill upon which Joseph must run, never making any headway, and allows for some impressive choreography, with actors gliding by, sidestepping furniture as they move from home to office to court.
Two hours straight-through on seats as uncomfortable as the ones at the Young Vic is a tall order. But this is a play about protracted, dreary despair, a silent scream dragged out over years until the inevitable release of death – it rather adds to the Kafkaesque experience.
First published by City A.M.