Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Melbourne and Thin Ice present THE TRIAL adapted by Louise Fox, from the novel by Franz Kafka, at the Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf 1.
THE TRIAL is the third Kafka based theatre experience that the Sydney Theatre Company has presented to us in the last eighteen months : KAFKA’S MONKEY and METAMORPHOSIS being the other two. THE TRIAL adapted by Louise Fox, from the novel by Franz Kafka is a ThinIce, Malthouse Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Company Commission. The last time I met the work of Louise Fox was the commission by The STC in the 2005 Blueprints season, under the direction of Benjamin Winspear, THIS LITTLE PIGGY, an imagined sequel to George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM, at Wharf 2.
THE TRIAL is an unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, it was published in 1924, after the death of the author by Kafka’s friend and literary editor, Max Brod. It tells the story of Josef K., a bank clerk, who on waking on his thirtieth birthday finds himself arrested and later prosecuted for an unspecified crime. The following year escalates into mounting confrontations with a bewildering bureaucracy and it’s servants and temptations. Paranoia seeps into the psyche of Josef K and grows to a farcical state of accumulating bemusement and confusion. It ends on the last day of K’s thirtieth year when two men arrive to execute him. There is no resistance left in the ‘flayed’ object of state pursuit. He dies “like a dog”.
The novel has been adapted, notably before, for the stage, by Steven Berkoff (1970), and on film by Orson Welles (1962) with Anthony Perkins. Louise Fox has adapted her “version” of the story within the theatrical frameworks available to her, with a sharp eye to the times she lives in. The Director, Matthew Lutton has with a cast of seven actors: John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalenjais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael, Igor Sas, and a design team: Set by Claude Marcos; Costume by Alice Babbidge; Lighting by Paul Jackson; Composer: Ash Gibson Greig and Sound Design by Kelly Ryall created an intellectual puzzle and stimulation of the source material.
Following on from the Benedict Andrew’s adaptation/vision of Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE and even some of the thematic streams of Tom Holloway’s LOVE ME TENDER, this work, adaptation, of THE TRIAL, for me, seemed to focus into a present cultural debate: the divide between the world of the Law (Authority – perhaps both secular and religious) and the world of human sexual desire. The battle that an individual may have with the physical fulfilment and further aspirated sexual fantasies and his/her sense of responsibility and guilt about them, today. Desire and guilt, both authorised, manufactured by the authorities – and the resultant dilemma when faced with the public ‘authorities’ of the law and its punitive view of these inclinations. Coupled with a sense of the hypocrisy of the authorities controlling of our lives, suspecting, that what is bad for me is sanctioned/permitted elsewhere- even indulged by the authorities themselves. THE TRIAL another Australian, contemporary examination of a world where pornography under various guises is reflected in the overwhelming ‘raunch’ culture of our environments, encouraged and permitted by the authorities and their ‘profit masters’, and yet condemned. Paranoia leading to despair, being the journey of the everyman, attempting to find some sense, an equilibrium, in his/her world of existence. The carrot and the stick. The carrot and the stick.
We begin with Josef K (Ewen Leslie) in a maroon curtain, draped bedroom, asleep. A pink bra and female underwear panties is seen, suggesting an earlier evening of pleasuring. Two men enter the room and with the swiftly wound tension of a Pinteresque environment or Hitchcockian cold war obsession of paranoia, Josef K is told he is under arrest, but is denied the knowledge of his offence. And thus begins a nightmare journey of remonstrance and further indulgence. Doors open and close, figures enter and exit. Conversations, accusations are exchanged. Arguments, puzzlements and proffered explanations abound. Hopeful solutions turn to failed endeavours and convoluted circumlocutions. Figure after figure role-play, on and on, a whirl of swiftly adjusted masks. The room spins, the chase escalates down back stairs, passageways; sexualised images appear: floggings and even sexual tauntings in schoolgirl clothing. The world expands into the box within a box, unadorned plywood, and there seems to be no exit- no exit, except that of extinction. Josef K is left in his underwear, in a bare box spinning round and round, dripping blood. Ultimately we are left with an empty box, spinning still, with just a pool of blood gleaming on the floor. Round and round the universe spins.
Louise Fox in the program notes records twelve favourite Kafka quotes which include: “#8: Every revolution evaporates and leaves only the slime of a new bureaucracy” and “#9: It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.”
The first scene awoke an excited expectation in me. But progressively throughout the performance it began to ebb away. Intellectually, web spinning, that tended to be played earnestly without a hint of comic comment – it held me in a Brechtian vice of objectivity. Objectivity of not only about content and method but even in contemplation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the performers, while watching them – vocal habits, physical tensions etc. Then, finally John Gaden playing Herr Huld , the Lawyer appeared, and in a wickedly erudite explication of the writing revealed the humour, the irony, the right comic touch to the written text and I was re-engaged (Mr Gaden, then followed up in his usual skilful shape shifting manner, to deliver the intriguing parable of the Priest in the late scenes).
I began to contemplate and have, further, since. One of the intriguing pieces of information in the essay by Dimitris Vardoulakis; KAFKA’S OTHER FREEDOM, in the (as usual – over priced and inadequate) STC program, was: “When Kafka read THE TRIAL to the literary salon he was frequenting in Prague, it was said to be delivered in such a way as to have the entire room in hysterics of laughter. Such was the general mirth that he was unable to complete his reading.”
Ah, was that it? “Hysterics of laughter”. “General mirth”. Where was the humour, tonight? For, the audience I sat with, sat flummoxed by the mad world created by the production. A respectful attention was elicited. Only latterly did we become physically demonstrative with our impatience, get restive, look at our watches, in a long one act performance of the play. Then, entered Mr Gaden as Herr Huld in the latter scene, and, lo and behold, there grew a scattering of laughter from members of the audience, relievedly. An entrance point for the audience’s reception to the work had been indicated and delivered. Mr Gaden was hitting the mark in the writing and guiding us to listen and look at the authorial comedy. For, in hindsight, and on reading the play, afterwards, the rest of the text has a sense of the diabolical comic edge of this world. And certainly the production style had the accumulative trappings of craziness of farce, and yet the resultant acting and directorial hand remained earnest without a hint to the audience to penetrate the façade of the illusion of the po-face of the represented bureaucracy.
I remember, the chaos of Ms Fox’s THIS LITTLE PIGGY, in 2005, and now reflect it was probably not the play but the production that obfuscated the experience. Orwell’s satire expunged in a welter of directorial intellectuality and over-loaded gimmickry. This was true of the Mr Andrews’ production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE that I saw at Belvoir a few months ago. Maybe it is true of Mr Lutton as well, here. There is an earnestness , a cynical and nihilistic point of view that is relentless and mostly unleavened with a potential sense of comic irony or humour. Of how to survive this world without death being the only solution. Is this the necessary baggage of the relative youthfulness of these artists? That the wisdom of age and/or the blessings of incisive genius - the need to find the optimistic educative tools for survival - is the ingredient that has yet to influence these very interesting, relatively imaginative and gifted auteurs? Or is it reflective of a generation of artists representing a world, that is over burdening for them, in which they live?
Yet, the Restoration Artist, struggling in a morally corrupt world, still found the knife of satire and irony in their explosive critiques of their time: the Restoration Comedy. More recently, Joe Orton in his coruscating plays of the swinging sixties of London found the double edge of serious comment and lethal humour:
‘You’re in a madhouse. Unusual behaviour is the order of the day.’
‘Only for patients.’
‘We’ve no privileged class here. It’s democratic lunacy we practice.”
(One looks forward to a senior artist, Richard Cottrell, tackling LOOT, for us next season at the Sydney Theatre Company. If you count his work on TRAVESTIES two seasons ago, one can be hopeful that an object lesson for these younger artists will be revealed. Serious comment and humour, both at once). These plays and playwrights have survived in the theatre – but they need directors with empathy and the incisive humorous capacity to translate for the audience.
This then, is my unhappiness with my night in the theatre: the lack of humour, that palled the texture of the script of Ms Fox. For the Design elements were wonderfully conceived and executed, especially the remarkable Sound design of Mr Ryall. Ewen Leslie, following on from his recent performance as Richard III, in Melbourne, demonstrates once again his ability to lead a company by anchoring it with bravura work, not only inspirationally but also with grounded and strong technical prowess. John Gaden, again, marvellous and generous in all of his creativity and wit.
A welcome text, adding to the dramatic literature been spawned this year. The production, while technically dazzling, lacks the rich comic point of view that it deserves.
Go and see why ‘Kafkaesque’ is part of the lexicon.