Entering the Brockley Jack Studio, the audience also enters into the emotional world of Joseph K, as we watch the production’s sole actor Brendan O’Rourke crawl about on his hands and knees, making his mark again and again with a little piece of chalk. The black box studio’s walls, and all the space surrounding the tiled floor centre stage, are already covered with endless repetitions of the name and initial, “Joseph K”, yet O’Rourke still continues, still adds more. We are reminded of Jack Torrence’s typewritten pages in The Shining, and this association with the horror genre is not misplaced: despite its humour, there is horror in every manifestation of The Trial. Beyond this, we also gain an understanding of how this character suffers: he is imprisoned, and rather than mark his cell walls with tallies counting out the days, he instead insists on attempting to assert his self – his identity – when faced with a world which has robbed him of his power, his autonomy, and his right to define himself (“how can [he] know [he] is innocent, when [he] doesn’t know [his] charge?”) The aesthetics also nod toward the history of the original text: the white-on-black script is an inversion of the book’s printed origins, and the name which has loomed large in many literary discussions is self-consciously made to loom literally large here. Director Saul Reid and O’Rourke, who together designed this set, have created something truly evocative, which manages to both portray the personal struggle of this production’s Joseph K, and also acknowledge the history of the Kafka creation that has haunted readers and spectators for close to a century.
When all are settled, the story begins. We are told that “Someone must have maligned Joseph K because he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.” Our Joseph K for the evening is Irish, and populates his world with (Western) Irish characters, which leads one to make connections between Kafka’s work and the history of the actor’s homeland (my companion immediately thought of the Easter Uprising), underscoring the potential universality of the original story. Our hero tells us how his ordeal started one year ago, and that he is now awaiting his “termination” (as they call it in these parts). Over the course of an hour, he tells the story of his arrest, and the events following it, punctuating this narrative of the past with scenes of his imprisoned present.
O’Rourke is a truly talented performer: he populates the entire plot with great ease, transforming himself into a range of characters with sudden, clearly defined shifts in voice and physicality. He has a wonderful sense of humour, and is a master of deadpan delivery (notably “Christian name and initial – / Which is the house style), the flustered straightman (“And they asked for my night shirt/My nightshirt!/ And we’d only just met!”) and caricatures (the horribly panting judge, the scandalised uncle, the two crooked men who arrest him…) He drives the narrative skillfully, and is an utter delight to watch while in story-telling mode. His depiction of the “Before the Law” fable was a particular highlight: he conveyed both the comedy and the horror of the tale perfectly, and his performance never became too heavy, never seemed too light.
The cell scenes, however, have a tendency to slow down the production a bit. At other points Howard Colyer’s divergence from the plot serves to simplify things, editing down the original text to create a quicker-moving story line, but this was not so much the case here. Joseph K’s imprisonment is Colyer’s invention (this is not how Kafka’s character originally ends up): it serves as a neat framing device for the show, and one understands the metaphorical significance of the protagonist talking to literal walls (considering the futility of communication he experiences throughout the story), but some of these scenes could have been stripped back. The imprisoned plaints can sometimes feel a bit redundant – Joseph K does not need to ask his cell “What is the law/in a case/such as mine?/What is the law?/The law is – /a cloak of tyranny/is it true?”. The narrative itself asks these questions, or at least encourages the audience to do so.
The Trial truly fits the one-man show format: it offers a portrayal of the literal isolation of Joseph K (an isolation felt by his tortured creator), a poignancy that compliments the character’s satire of his fellow, but estranged, creatures. Reid’s production offers an interesting new insight into the classic work, and I hope it has a life beyond this run – with a bit of editing, this reincarnation of Kafka could well become part of the hallowed The Trial canon.
The Trial is playing Jack Studio Theatre until August 27.
Image by Jessy Boon Cowler