The Trial, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Studio, ROH, October 2014Posted on 11 October 2014
In Kafka’s novel The Trial an ordinary intelligent man is caught up in a process to which he earnestly hopes he can find a clear end, and this musical realisation by Philip Glass, with a libretto by Christopher Hampton, captures the comedy and close observation of the original.
There could, I suppose, be a temptation to present The Trial as a nightmarish account of one man’s battle with a totalitarian state, but that would be much too narrow, and this representation takes a far broader view, seeing the process as a metaphor for life. Josef K is trapped, arrested for he knows not what, but still able to pursue his normal work. He protests his innocence against charges he does not even know, yet in a sense that is true for everyone since the Fall of Man. We are all sinners.
The question of what the outcome should be is addressed in the penultimate scene when the chaplain says, “The verdict evolves from the proceedings”. Josef K’s encounter with the chaplain comes unexpectedly in the course of his work, and the metaphor of death is clearly presented as the chaplain relates the story of a gatekeeper. A man who wishes to enter and reach the Law asks why no one else had requested admission, and the gatekeeper eventually replies, “Nobody else could ever come through here, because this gate is meant for you alone. I shall now close it”.
Suddenly the final scene is upon us, where Josef K and his two guards move as a unit, apparently in accordance with his own free will. Yet there is only one conclusion. In the meantime the music with its occasional percussive intensity, and the staging with its strong and clear visual images, have drawn us in to this extraordinary story, leaving a lasting impression. The acausality of the proceedings leads to existential questions about life and free will, which emerge beautifully from this intriguing unity of words and music by Christopher Hampton and Philip Glass. The words are vital, and the large but faint surtitles are rendered almost superfluous by marvellously clear diction from the singers. I have never heard the acoustics of the Linbury Studio used to such stunning effect.
Johnny Herford gives a superbly engaging performance of the sincere young Josef K, caught in a web within which any control he tries to exert only traps him deeper. The other seven singers, playing eighteen roles between them, all performed extremely well; I found Amanda Forbes outstanding as Leni, and particularly liked Paul Curievici as the painter Titorelli, Rowan Hellier as the Washerwoman, and Nicholas Folwell as the Priest. Excellent direction by Michael McCarthy, with simple but effective designs by Simon Banham well lit by Ace McCarron, plus the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble under the baton of Michael Rafferty, produced a compelling unity of image and sound.
Philip Glass’s music seems to fit Kafka’s Trial like a glove, aided of course by the depth and clarity of Christopher Hampton’s libretto.
This MTW production, co-commissioned by the Royal Opera, Theater Magdeburg and Scottish Opera is a winner, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a recording on Saturday, 25 October at 9:45pm. Performances at the Linbury Studio continue until October 18, after which it tours to: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 22 Oct; Canolfan y Celfyddydau Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 28 Oct; Oxford Playhouse, 3 Nov; The Anvil, Basingstoke, 4 November; Theatr y Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 7 Nov; Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, 9 Nov; Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 10 Nov — for details click here.