Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a blackly ironic vision of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy in such a vision means not only the office blocks, government officials, legal proceedings and clerical work with which Kafka himself was personally familiar: it also means, symbolically, the process of obfuscation which springs up spontaneously in such organised societies as have lost their primitive faith and which, for that loss, manifest in their civic heart a yawning ambiguity, a great hole where there is no certainty of value or tangible truth, a hole which, if it were not obscured by some superficial structure or process, something to conceal the certainty of incertitude, if it were left exposed, this severe indeterminacy, would probably inspire the kind of existential horror we usually describe as, you know, Kafkaesque.
That’s just one possible analysis, but it’s one that I think might be useful in thinking about this latest ThinIce production, directed by Matthew Lutton and adapted by Louise Fox, playing now at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, for it is a production which does nothing if not obscure. And because of that, at least, it had me grinning like a hound: from beginning to end, this is a very silly show.
The guest essayist in the program works hard to emphasise the black comedy that Kafka wove his novel from, re-heating the story of how they all laughed “immoderately” when Kafka first read extracts to his Prague Circle friends. That was back in 1914. Subsequent events rather overtook the slapstick, and, by the end of the twentieth century, The Trial had developed a more serious and gloomy reputation, with its central image of a man arrested without having done anything wrong tending interpretations toward the darkly political. It was still funny, but not necessarily ha-ha funny. Not “immoderately” funny.
Now, of course, we’re in a new century, with new theatres and new theatre makers who have no time for the serious posturing of that other dour century. And, yes, ok, this isn’t technically a Malthouse production, but it neatly fits the pattern of craptacular thigh-slappers programmed there this year, all of which show the same impatience with seriousness: Optimism, Furious Mattress, Elizabeth, Threepenny Opera. Take any topic, no matter how weighty, the piss can and should be taken. Are you an Indian doctor? No? Well then why aren’t you laughing? Don’t be so po-faced. Don’t you get it? It’s fucking ironic. Kafka’s world is only an “illusory” one anyway (explains Matthew Lutton in the program), so what’s your problem? Banality of evil? Here’s a gold lamé bikini! Terror at the loss of meaningfulness in an infinitely meaningful reality? Did someone say baggy underwear? The excessive demands of simply existing? Check out our stage, twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!
Obscurity: it’s not just the obscuring dazzle of the imagery and the jokes, the method, too, is difficult to understand beyond inciting giggles. The buffoonery, the shabbiness, the awkward over-articulation of, well, absolutely everything. I was like dog snapping at flies! Here’s a random sampling: the showroom cheapness of the furnishings and fixtures; the relentless sound of a squeaky exhaust fan from off stage; actors stumbling over the assortment of props tossed about the little room; the MTV visual clichés as Joseph K. dashes about looking for Lanz the plumber; Kafka’s latent sexual tension made laughably patent, with all and sundry going the grope … The point, I suppose, is the superficiality and the distraction itself, an artistic cynicism which accurately reflects contemporary attitudes toward bureaucracy, as well as our attitudes toward questions of moral ambiguity.
A lot of space is provided for Joseph’s uncle when he announces with talmudic gravity, Evil is whatever distracts, which is hilarious given that there isn’t a single scene in the entire play that isn’t larded with distraction. Even the penultimate scene, where John Gaden as the priest actually gets to do some real acting, not just ham acting, delivering the Parable of the Law with a touching kind of worldly compassion, even then you have Ewen Leslie (who headlines the show as Joseph K.) wandering about, rubbing himself against a wall, pulling focus, &c. &c. … and then, of course, the stage starts spinning like a top, again.
The performances are all high energy, with bodies tossed here and there, and no scene complete until someone’s head has been launched into a wall. Mixed through the clichés and clowning, Lutton shows off some very deft transitions between scenes, but most of his work seems to go toward baffling any kind of synthesis. And what to make of Louise Fox’s adaptation? It’s summed up best, I think, in my favourite Kafka quote: “Dear Max, you’d better burn this lot, or they’ll be plucking quotes and putting them on mugs and I’ll end up sounding like a pimply teenager.” The story comes through strongly, but the tone swings wildly between quote-of-the-day wisdom and bathetic anticlimax.
This show is touring through Sydney and Perth after it has finished in Melbourne. It’s a good time, so long as you’re not too precious about Kafka, or theatre, or anything else, really. Yeah.
Tickets from the Malthouse until September 4
Running Time: Approx 110 min (no interval)