The Trial

Tue 7th – Sat 11th May 2013

reviews

Thea Bradbury

at 03:49 on 8th May 2013

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A warm summer's evening in Trinity Term might not seem like the best time to watch Kafka's bleak, existentialist 'The Trial'. However, Hypnotist Theatre's experimental production (from Steven Berkoff's adaption) rewards the effort. Working with a cast of just six and with their only props an office chair and some rope, they manage to tell the dark, bewildering story of Joseph K - arrested and put on trial without ever being told the charges against him - in a way that feels very true to Kafka's original work.

The most striking thing about this production is its minimalism: seats surround a low stage, hemming in the actors in a manner clearly intended to mimic K's own entrapment. Throughout the play, the audience is mere feet away from the raging, pleading, threatening, seducing characters, who take seats next to audience members, interrupt the action from amongst them, and crack whips on the floor inches from their legs. The minimalism of the setting both intensifies the experience and permits the actors to display the full range of their talents: not only does each member of the ensemble play multiple characters, they also fill in as props, portraying everything from typewriters to mirrors. This requires an immense amount of skill: Joseph K (the excellent Alex Shavik) may be the star of the show, but there's really nothing to choose between him and the rest of the cast, who switch from femmes fatales to grovelling prisoners in the blink of an eye, as well as providing eerily immersive sound effects. There's a few slips of the tongue along the way, but for a first night this was an impressively polished performance.

The structure of the play is deliberately confused: voices speak out of nowhere; participants in the action suddenly become narrators. It's never quite clear what is real and what is happening inside K's head, and this mental disorientation provides a nice echo of the minimalistic staging. K is hustled from one situation to another seemingly at random, and although the play seems to build towards a climax, the action is never truly resolved. Although it can take a while to get accustomed to, this confusion provokes the audience to engage with the action, and there's no doubt that the performance left us with plenty to ponder on.

I was hugely impressed by the physicality and versatility of the performances in The Trial: the first-night performance I saw was already very good, and later showings can only get better. While Kafka's dark existentialism may not seem the best accompaniment to a packed Trinity schedule of lazing around in the sunshine, the talent, originality and choreography on display in this play means that it's definitely worth giving it - you guessed it - a trial.

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Matthew Davies

at 09:59 on 8th May 2013

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Kafka’s The Trial isn’t the cheeriest of tales. It’s a story of mystery and disorientation, featuring a byzantine legal process which puts even the Oxford bureaucracy to shame. This new production by Hypnotist Theatre, which uses the 1970 theatre adaptation by Stephen Berkoff, manages to effectively capture the feel of Kafka’s original, plunging the audience into a surreal and distressing world.

Upon walking in the audience is caught within a three-hundred-and-sixty degree set-up, becoming trapped in the bizarre and inscrutable world of The Trial. The walls of the studio are bare, and no props litter the stage. The tone is instead set by the lighting, which is at turns harsh and faint, and the atmosphere is intimate to the point of claustrophobia. The use of ambient sound is understated yet effective, accentuating the intensity of this in-the-round performance, and the cast stand around the tiny Burton Taylor studio in identical white makeup, providing a chorus of assent and dissent with their voices.

At the centre of all of this is Joseph K – a name which will soon become something of a mantra, repeated incessantly. Alex Shavick plays K as blustering and nervous, and with more than a hint of self-importance – he is, we are informed, the chief clerk at a large bank. Informed he is to be put on trial for an unknown crime, K stumbles through the remainder of the play in varying states of confusion and despair, meeting a variety of ludicrous characters with their own quirks and agendas.

The ensemble are faceless and identical, each actor playing numerous characters without costume changes. Generally, the cast do a good job of differentiating their roles through voice and body language, although it can be confusing when an actor switches personality in the space of a few short minutes. The acting on display is occasionally overstated but ultimately powerful and convincing, and the play’s manic characters certainly seem to be earnest lunatics.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Trial. Kafka’s original can be intensely unsettling, playing on our fears of both the mundane and the unknown, and this production – billed as ‘experimental’ – certainly hits the mark. Perhaps I wouldn’t recommend it to those looking for a whimsical and relaxing evening at the theatre, but that’s a fault of the original, if it’s a fault at all. If, on the other hand, you want to be entertained, confused, chilled and shocked, all in equal measure, then The Trial is definitely worth seeing.

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