The Trial at Seven Arts – Reviewed

Proper Job Theatre Company and Chris O’Connor have delivered an interpretation of Kafka for the digital age.

The Trial is a story about alienation and power. Franz Kafka presents Joseph K as an individual who is ground down by a system he doesn’t understand, arrested for a crime that is never revealed to him. Chris O’Connor has updated the story, with power now linked to technology. 

The set and theatrical style are abstract and timeless but the context is clearly present day or near future. Despite the focus on technology, the production relies on traditions of physical theatre. Technology is used,  notably to show how communication with the accused is now via baffling text messages, but it is still the interaction between actors that drives the play. 

Joseph K starts as part of the audience. His initial infringement is something that could happen to any of us. He is summoned to the stage in a jovial manner. Then the atmosphere changes as his arrest is declared.

The play seems more relevant than ever in the digital age. Joseph K doesn’t know what crime he’s been accused of. He believes he’s done nothing wrong, but can any one of us claim this as the complete truth? What is apparent is that deeds can hidden or exposed, depending upon who controls the information highway. 

Walden looms as an omnipresent driver of this society. Although described as an artificial intelligence, the audience will no doubt make comparisons with the media corporations of today. It is clear that Walden holds the power, and in the process can determine perceptions of truth. 

Very little is overtly explained in this production. There are plenty of ideas that you may ponder on later: lives lived through technology, the distortion of celebrity, and the nature of truth. 

Ali Michael gives a convincing central performance. Moving from trusting naivety to angry but impotent rebellion, his natural acting style contrasting with stylised performances from other main characters. There is a danger that The Trial can be portrayed as an individual battling against a hidden system, divorced from wider society. The use of a supporting cast, either as mobile phone-bearing spectators or as a chorus, avoids this pitfall. 

The cast work well together, especially given that they were only performing at Seven Arts for one night. The stage area here is smaller than many venues and a limited backstage could have made exits and entrances difficult. However, the company showed perfect timing, good pace and fluent movement. Proper Theatre claims a background in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, a technique from Russian theatre. The precise nature and stylistics of this production may owe much to this.

As part of the Kickstart Programme to rejuvenate the cultural economy, Proper Theatre has taken on six young people for six months. They have clearly contributed considerably to the production. Of particular note was Ellie Spooner, who made an impression both with her singing voice and stage presence.

Kafka’s work was never finished. Chris O’Connor hasn’t attempted to fill in the gaps of the story. Instead, he has distilled the tale to a show of around eighty minutes. The frustration and alienation are prominent, but they are entwined with comedic touches. The show was both entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Well worth seeing.

3rd/4th November – The Dukes, Lancaster – info & tickets

5th November – Mansfield Palace Theatre – info & tickets

Photographs provided by Proper Job Theatre Company.

Debbie Rolls

Debbie's interests are in folk music and jazz, theatre and food, as well as the natural environment and Leeds' history.

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