The Trial (Part 2)

Franz Kafka adapted by Joshua Nawras and Felix Mortimer
43 De Beauvoir Rd N1 5SQ

Leaflet from Department for Digital Privacy

When I was arrested outside Shoreditch Town Hall four weeks ago I was told to report to this address for my trial. It is the office of the Department for Digital Privacy and like a dutiful citizen eager to prove my innocence I reported there at the time directed, despite the dire warnings that had been given me by people I encountered soon after my arrest.

Since I am now, once again, at liberty and In view of the whole circumstances I would probably be wisest so say nothing more about it. But…

Hey, it’s only a show isn’t it, let’s take the risk. After all, most of it is what you’d expect, after being checked by security and registered the defendant is passed along a chain of pointless officials. Already condemned, for there is no trial process, ahead lies the ultimate process: a sequence of pain and then ecstatic pleasure from which it seems there is no recovery, a lone person described it last month. This is not a punishment for a crime you have committed but for one that you might. To tell anything more would be a spoiler.

As in Part 1 there is a dedicated cast taking it all very seriously (unlike one smirking “defendant” I encountered, or perhaps they were terribly nervous). The pretence that it is real extends to there being no programme and no credits on the company’s web site but The Stage listings name Ewan Benfield, Bill Bingham, Josie Bloom, Victoria Broom, Ewan Benfield, Olivette Cole Wilson, Sam Dent, Silvanna Maimone, Nic Lamont and Myles Nichol and Felix Mortimer as the director. I have no idea who plays what in the varied displays of ingratiating courtesy, bored indifference, intimate whispering or vindictive officialdom but thank you especially to whoever gave me the lovely hand massage. It was the only scene I would have liked to have gone on longer.

That procedure was almost a Mary Magdalena foot-washing episode and there were one or two other surreal touches, like the typist who couldn’t speak properly and whose fingers fluttered over the whole keyboard without striking a single one to enter the address just given him or the lawyer gabbling a babble of incomprehensible syllables when reading the defendant their rights but against the banality that surrounds them they seem silly rather than making points about incompetent bureaucracy or lawyer / government speak. The whole show of course is about faceless officialdom and state power, but its methods are remarkably bland compared to a military boot camp, old labour exchange procedures, applying for benefits or waiting interminably in an A & E Department.

Although Kafka may have provided the germ of this creation, it doesn’t attempt to follow his scenario. It puts a very contemporary gloss on its warnings about Big Brother Britain, the way in which our digital world allows governments (and others) to monitor our activity, guess not just which book or DVD we might be tempted into buying but how we might vote, our sexual inclination. Character profiles are already part of the police apparatus. If we cross that borderline between crimes committed and crimes there is potential for committing, we could soon all be guilty. How do you prove you are not a terror? What is the government doing with the names on all those e-petitions of support or of protest? Who is digging inside your home computer? What is that anti-virus programme you just installed really doing?

In this show, Retz is right on the ball in terms of topic but their method has very little theatrical energy. I was rather looking forward to that Barbarella-like moment even without Jane Fonda to share it. The context makes the “defendant” remarkably docile. It is not just a sense of being trapped in the process but that the script provides no real opportunity to fight back, it’s all kept so polite until it is too late. That too, of course, is a warning about not taking action, but drama is about conflict not acquiescence.

The problem is that this is a show that makes the audience wish they were somewhere else. There are much better ways of spending one’s time that waiting for something awful to happen.

Comparing Part 1 with other shows, I could have seen that night there were many more enjoyable. I must admit I was tempted not to turn up for my trial, but theatre is not necessarily all pleasant. Still I do wonder what would have happened if I had ignored the summons of the Department of Digital Privacy; would they have tracked me down and abducted me from the foyer of the Old Vic, used special rendition to remove me from a beach in Bermuda?

Once you have reported, in rooms that seemed to get smaller and darker and corridors with no way out, the trap closes around you. But for me the result was more tedium than terror.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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