Before Berkoff's Law

Ben Cook reviews Steven Berkoff's The Trial, the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 10 February 2012Rating: 5/5 Joseph K., a young banker, wakes up one morning to find himself accosted by two wardens of the state. They have come to arrest him for an unspecified crime. Detained for only a short while, he is released and told to await his trial. So begins Kafka’s existential tale of a young man compelled to unravel the bureaucracy that led to his arrest and to clear his name. Adapted to the stage by Steven Berkoff and published in 1981, the play combines physical theatre with a minimalist set of skeletal frames. Straying from the original production, Blackeyed Theatre has reduced the number of actors from twenty to five, but nevertheless the bleak essence of the play remains untouched.From the moment K. (Simon Wegrzyn) rises from his bed to a cacophony of screeches, ringing, and yells of ‘Get up! Get Up!’ he is in a constant state of motion. Scenes are changed in the midst of actors' monologues. Actors switch roles, moving from the foreground as they impede K.’s progress to the background as they vocalise his thoughts. Only at the mid-performance interval does anyone leave the stage. There is no traditional soundtrack; instead the ensemble perform jazzy a cappella as they transform the stage. Occasionally the singing can clash with the delivery of lines, but in general it melds seamlessly into the performance; the culmination of which has the ensemble imitating a Gregorian chant as K. questions Christ for answers about his fate. The play is beautifully choreographed and gives the production a ceaseless rhythm which is enthralling to watch as it is frustrating for K. to fight against.Somehow, in between all the transitions, the play manages to remain coherent. Despite the fluidity of place and character the plot is simple and it is this simplicity which anchors the narrative. As K. tries to have his court case brought to trial he meets various individuals who assure him they can help him. It is one of the prevalent ambiguities of the play that we are never quite sure how little or how much they do help. Ultimately K. is dissatisfied with their assistance and looks elsewhere. It is here that the advantage of a small cast becomes apparent. For though the characters change the actors remain the same and because of it the audience becomes aware of the repetitive and cyclical nature of K.’s search for answers. Special mention must go to Nadia Morgan who plays all the female roles of the production, from landlady, to maid, to supplicant nun. Her range is truly impressive and stands out in a cast that is bilaterally superb.As satisfying as it might be to watch a banker arrested and hounded by his own conscious, The Trial has maintained its reputation, at least partly, by speaking to a wider demographic. Regardless of your personal thoughts about bankers, Blackeyed Theatre has produced a play that speaks to anybody that has ever felt entrapped by societies or institutions that thwart your every move. Ben CookImage credits – George Riddell