Manchester Theatre Awards

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Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Greater Manchester Fringe Festival)

Franz Kafka adapted by Matt Holt and Evelyn Roberts
People Zoo Productions
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
26 July 2016 to 30 July 2016

Even people who haven’t read the works of Franz Kafka are aware of his themes. The word ‘Kafkaesque’ was coined to describe paranoid situations in which faceless unfeeling bureaucrats destroy innocent individuals. People Zoo Productions confound expectations with a version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial that will prompt those grown blasé about the well-known story into looking at it in a new light.

Director Craig Sanders avoids the obvious and, instead of a dark drama full of paranoia and despair, opts for an absurd comedy. A pair of bungling bureaucrats (Matt Holt and Evelyn Roberts, who produced and co-wrote the adaptation) informs banker Josef K (William J Holstead) that he is to stand trial for an offence that is not specified. Initially confident, Josef finds his self-belief being eroded by increasingly absurd developments. 

Rather than set a mood of desperation and fear, Sanders, in Act One, applies the classic comedy device of baffled exasperation. It perfectly captures the arrogance of Josef K, who simply cannot believe that a man of his stature in society can be subjected to a trial. It is, however, not all laughs. In the style of Brecht, downbeat fairground tunes are played during scene transitions. The mood darkens in the second Act, but remains comedic even if it gains a cruel edge. Rather than give in to despair, Josef K moves towards hysteria and submits to his fate simply out of exhaustion and a bizarre recognition that it might be just. It is a very physical production and, again, the mood switches from humour towards fear as clownish fight scenes lose their cartoon aspect and become realistically disturbing depictions of abuse.  

Adaptors Matt Holt and Evelyn Roberts take a cheeky, irreverent approach to proving the contemporary relevance of the source material. After his initial arrest Josef K is asked for feedback and grades his interrogators on a scale of 0-10. The audience is made aware that, as in our present society, anything that happens to the elite is even worse for those at the bottom of the ladder, as the bureaucrats are mercilessly flogged. Holt and Roberts establish more of a nightmarish society than a paranoid one. The legal profession is portrayed as a sensual orgy in which textbooks sigh with pleasure when opened and desperate appeals are ignored, as the lawyers are too busy shagging. Even Josef K initially gets to enjoy the sexual benefits of being perceived as a bad boy. 

An impeccable ensemble is led by a stunning performance from William J Holstead. He has a physical frame that is perfect for comedy. Tall and stick thin, he moves like a cross between Groucho Marx and a stork. His body is all angles, constantly twisting and turning as his predicament becomes direr. Holstead communicates the final heartbreaking twist to Franz Kafka’s The Trial. As the play progresses, his increasingly frenzied efforts to prove his innocence drive Josef K to abusive acts. Holstead’s agonised performance shows an awareness that Josef knows his extreme behaviour is actually proving his guilt but is so caught up in the absurd system that he is unable to redeem himself. Despite his being a banker, you almost feel sorry for Josef K. 

An observation repeated throughout Franz Kafka’s The Trial is that ‘no one is innocent’. Well, no one should miss this play. 

Reviewer: David Cunningham