Max Lindon sees a darkly comic and contemporary stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.
LTC’s production of Joseph K by Tom Basden reimagines The Trial in 21st century Britain. The totalitarian state of Kafka’s original is replaced by our own globalised, technologically advanced society, and many of the maddening conflicts with bureaucracy that the eponymous protagonist goes through would be eerily familiar to everyone who has interacted with any modern “customer service” team. The comedy is highly surreal, akin to something you might watch late at night on Adult Swim, and though there were some exceptionally funny moments, at other times the audience seemed more bemused than amused. Joseph K was rich in subtext, but continually distanced itself from any unambiguous preaching through its relentless absurdity. It evoked many common gripes about modern life, including the millennial generation’s lack of career prospects, how social media trivialises our lives, and how elites manufacture consent from the masses for their self-interested agendas (there was even a picture of Margaret Thatcher on one character’s desk). However, the key target of Basden’s criticism appears to be the maddening complexity of our society, which seems especially relevant in a Britain where a financial crash that no-one can explain has precipitated a messy divorce from a political union that nobody understands.
Facing off against this incomprehensible complexity, with predictable results, was Barnabas Mercer’s Joseph K. Mercer’s performance as this everyman figure was highly sympathetic, and he did a fine job of incorporating variation and build into his repeated portrayals of frustration. He was backed up by a stellar ensemble cast, all of whom brought something unique to the production and displayed impeccable characterisation. Sam Rietbergen and Tristan Robinson showed great chemistry as the duo sent to inform Joseph of his arrest, whilst Alex Taylor’s hilariously deadpan voice was put to great effect as a sat nav and a computerised lawyer. Shannon Burke also stood out as one of Joseph’s colleagues and as a timid but sexually voracious personal assistant, stuck in the (soon to be realised for many of us) nightmare of a 7-year unpaid internship. My one criticism of the ensemble work was the frequency of corpsing. I’ll readily admit that I love a good corpse as much as anyone in the right circumstances, but on one occasion in particular it completely hijacked a scene that I’m sure would’ve been equally hilarious without it, but would’ve also retained its dramatic impact.
Qasim Salam’s ingenious staging greatly added to the piece. Every member of the cast, with the exception of Mercer, wore brightly coloured morph suits under their costumes, accentuating the play’s absurdity and allowing for a great deal of fluidity in the transitions. Scene changes are traditionally a reviewer’s bugbear for tediously breaking up a play’s pace, but Joseph K’s were true comedic spectacles, that grew more elaborate and outrageous as Joseph descended further into madness. I would, however, warn audience members to avoid the front row, lest they be exposed to the same shower of detritus (including a bin that missed me by an inch) as I was.
Joseph K might not be for everyone, but it stands out as one of the most innovative and experimental shows of the year, exploring themes that are achingly relevant to our society. I would highly recommend checking it out—you probably won’t get the chance to see something like it in Durham for a while.