A review of The Trial, performed by Retz Theatre Company, adapted from Kafka’s novel by Joshua Nawras and Felix Mortimer. At Shoreditch Town Hall, EC1 & The Rose Lipman Community Centre, N1
Running Time: 2 parts of 1 hour each
5th March – 27th April 2013
Seen: 8th April 2013
Kafka intended the manuscipt of The Trial to be burnt after his death, along with all his other writings. His will was defied by Max Brod, his literary executor, who thereby provided modern literature with one of its most celebrated oeuvres.
None of the novels were finished, and Brod was forced into some abrupt editing. Perhaps, as Walter Benjamin maintained, the works were unfinishable, a reading that falls into line with his judgement that ‘Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.’ Kafka’s writings become the remnant parables of a doctrine that, if it existed at all, was not ever whole or coherent.
This cut-up aesthetic of form seems to me to extend through the content, creating a stop-start theatricality (‘the theatre is the logical place for such groupings’) to man’s encounter with his own existence. As the Priest tells Joseph K, ‘The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go.’
Retz have fashioned a theatrical experience that builds on these tenets, playing on the role of the state as godlike arbiter of the lives of individual men. Here things are resituated from Prague to East London and reframed into a contemporary context – the mysterious manoeuvrings of the ‘Department for Digital Privacy’, protectors and monopolists of public data. Retz cleverly use the idea there is already enough information about ourselves floating around that if all the multifarious forms of surveillance were at some background place made coherent, things would be scary. ‘At the heart of the department is the machine,’ and ‘If you are arrested one morning, it is because the machine knows you.’
Once again we are outside the theatre and inside an ‘experience’. This time it is ‘one on one, immersive [&] site-specific,’ but these are the buzzwords for all such affairs. Splashing in liberal doses of ‘In the Penal Colony’ for good measure, they have merged Kafka’s work in a similar manner to Fourth Monkey’s production over in E14, which itself lifted liberally from The Castle.
This is very complete, very thorough: the problem is that the fourth wall is often more present in this type of production than it would be in a conventional theatrical arrangement, where one might open the eyes wide and become really immersed in the spectacle. This new arrangment makes my body seem cumbersome, and I am aware of my own lack of agency. Maybe this is part of the point: one’s own lack of agency against a system. As the Priest says to Joseph later on, ‘it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.’ But if someone rushed into a room to murder its other occupant, I would surely do something. The production fails at the perpetual moments when it requires me to forget myself whilst also being an active participant, feeling like a video-game cut scene.
Particularly in its last moments, the show seemed to move across to the wrong side of absurd. If you must go to one Kafka ‘experience’ this month, this is better than In the Penal Colony. The attention to detail (I am constantly loaded with leaflets, logos and documents) is awesome, the re-arrangement of spaces remarkable, but the piece doesn’t seem to be at ease in its form and is, in sum, a relatively unfulfilling experiece.