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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


The Young Vic has become the home of groundbreaking theatre in London. It was here that Ivo van Hove reinvented Miller's A View from the Bridge, Benedict Andrews reimagined Chekhov, and opera and theatre director Richard Jones reinterprets Franz Kafka's 1915 novel The Trial.

This production stars Rory Kinnear, one of Britain's most talented stage actors. Actually, that is not quite true. The real star here is a travelator, one of those moving walkways installed at airports to reduce the seemingly continental-sized distance between where your plane lands and where you have to pick up your luggage. A moving stage is an intriguing idea. But this one did little to make the uninterrupted two hours of Jones' production seem briefer.

As Kafka's Josef K, the bank employee who is arrested and tried without being told why, Kinnear taps into a puffed-up there-must-be-some-mistake outrage. When at work, his K sits at a desk with a Vice President sign. But status means nothing in this world that, although Kafka was writing before half of Europe fell to communism, anticipates how a totalitarian machine chews up the individual.  

Outwardly K is the embodiment of respectability. However, we first encounter him watching a stripper (one of six characters played by the versatile Kate O'Flynn, including a police guard and a neighbour with whom K falls in love), and from this moment on Kinnear exudes a sweaty kind of drunk self-loathing that never goes away.

For that first scene, banker and stripper are transported by the travelator into view, like most of this show's props. Then, in an intricately choreographed move, K rises from his chair, loosens his tie and, traveling in the opposite direction of the belt, crashes onto his bed just after it enters the scene. Visually, at least, this is one of the evening's highlights. Great emphasis is placed on how things look. Miriam Beuther's design seats the audience like a giant jury on tiered benches on either side of the catwalk. We sit in judgment of K as he catalogues his life's often mean and petty misdemeanours. And yet perhaps because that precarious, arresting moment comes in the first scene, there is a gathering sense of Jones' production peaking far too early. Not much as interesting follows.   

If the travelator delivers diminishing returns, so does Nick Gill's adaptation. Unlike most of the play's colloquial dialogue, K speaks his thoughts in a kind of pidgin English. And although this helps to convey the sense of panic felt by a man who only belatedly grasps the seriousness of his predicament, it also provokes a nagging question that, once established, never goes away: “Why doesn't he talk properly?”

This feels like a production full of stand-alone good ideas. But combined, they rarely work in a way that brings insight to Kafka's nightmare. And in an odd sense, because Kinnear so convincingly stays loyal to the author's original vision for K – a flawed hero whose situation is easy to empathize with but whose goodness is ambiguous – there is a fatal absence of charm and heart to this production. And the grip established by the bold staging eventually loosens, making it hard to root for the bravery of Jones' decision, or the fate of K's character. One wants to care. But doesn't. The effect is like waiting for a lost suitcase at baggage reclaim, where it slowly dawns that something crucial is missing.


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