The Trail

If you’ve ever suffered from a lapse of concentration during a production, you’re certainly not alone. Many theatre-goers have confessed to missing out on the moment where Godot swings by for a cup of tea in Samuel Beckett’s old classic because of a particularly engaging daydream; others have become so swept up in planning their dinners during Shakespeare’s most grisly tragedy, they can be heard comparing cannibalistic Titus Andronicus to Delia Smith as they exit the auditorium.

Unfortunately, when a show unravels across various locations within Shoreditch and demands that you navigate your own route to the next scene, you can lose not just the narrative thread but also yourself. In East London, this is particularly dangerous, as local eccentricities such as a penny-farthing tied to a bicycle rack or that curious leafy aroma can easily distract you from the serious tasks at hand.

After delivering their immersive two-part, two-night adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial since the end of February, ambitious young company Retz is now allowing audiences to go from arrest to trial in one evening. In a play that’s all about an individual’s swift journey through a disturbingly efficient governmental system, where justice is secondary only to eliminating potential threats to the nation, this new presentation earns top marks for convenience. That said, teething problems here generated a navigational hiccup between parts one and two, sections that were, up until April, served up to audiences on different days. Thankfully, after backtracking a few interactions, Ewan Benfield’s Mr Block was to be found holding things together in a solicitor’s office, artfully refusing to break character as he gave directions to the next event.

By casting each ticket holder as a protagonist in this tale, adapters Joshua Nawras and Felix Mortimer have significantly slimmed down the novel’s central character, Josef K., leaving him with just two short interactions – one on video, warning us against the Department for Digital Privacy, and another where he invites us to help bring justice to a corrupt system. In this retelling, each audience member is put in Josef K.’s shoes, and is constantly asked to prove their innocence in a world unwilling to listen to any reason. Experienced, for the most part, on a one-to-one basis, where a string of characters repeatedly ascertain the audience member’s name and plea, this production passes its participants like batons through a heightened governmental  system, resulting in an appropriately alienating experience.

With the exceptions of that one well-recovered disjunction, and the all-too-common immersive theatre exit strategy that is the flashing red light and robotic voice indicating a ‘security breach’, the logistics of this adaptation were finely orchestrated. Overall, while it felt as though there was very little to be gained from long periods of waiting in terms of user experience, the lingering was very evocative of the crisp, functional and alienating bureaucracy that Kafka was always quick to attack.

This gap between experience and meaning is a defining characteristic of the production, as the vastly varied and fearfully persuasive cast deliver more parables and warnings than can be absorbed in 120 minutes of waiting, walking and familiar governmental technobabble. True to form, the creatives behind Retz, masters both of finding locations and of constructing particularly meaningful interior space, deliver an event saturated with great ideas across a thought-provoking landscape.

Overall, though, this production is just not quite tight enough to hold an untrained actor like me in the central role. The ways in which The Trial makes us complicit in our injustice and infringes a little too tightly on comfort zones is so appropriate in theory, but what can conceptually be understood as loneliness feels awkward and frustrating in practice. Similarly, often the antagonism between members of the cast and the accidental central actor seems so fraught with embarrassment that those minor issues of execution and thought control seem to lose their impact. Indeed, as Kafka might have requested, this adaption urges its audience to feel isolated, misunderstood and, at some particularly drawn-out moments, rather doomed; unfortunately, despite a very worthy effort, these emotions all seemed a bit too vain and self-conscious in the context of this art to do justice to such a pivotal source text.

The Trial is playing at various locations across Shoreditch until 27 April 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre’s website.