At his first court appearance following his arrest for unspecified crimes, Rory Kinnear's Josef K says to himself, aloud, face contorted with bemused shock and fear: “ee musten proclaim im innocent, an im put all facts before ee judge, im wrong arrest...” This strange language in Nick Gill's excitingly terrifying adaptation of Kafka's nightmarish classic is baffling at first, and won't be everyone's cup of tea. But delivered mesmerizingly by Kinnear, it soon becomes a compelling insight into Josef K's tormented consciousness as the mad plot of The Trial sucks him deeper and deeper into hell. Kinnear's syncopated delivery has a real poetry about it, and – far from being unintelligible gobbledygook – is ultimately rather brilliantly endearing.
Kinnear is on stage non-stop throughout this two-hour (without interval) slice of dystopia. It's Josef K's 35th birthday and his day starts with a knock at the door. Three agents from some department in what appears to be a police state inform him that the Comptroller wants him. “Mister K? And how do I spell that?” “K,” K replies. The absurdity of the situation ratchets up many notches when no specific charges are forthcoming, but Josef K's predicament gets more serious by the second. His understandable response at first is humour, disbelief, but paranoia quickly sets in. Kinnear's panicked facial expressions and awkward, sometimes writhing body language hold the audience's attention throughout, transfixed.
Richard Jones's production is spare on the details leading to K's threatened incarceration, and there's no obvious single political system or history being satirised here. Make of it what you will. The 1970s or 80s-era TV set and furniture aren't shabby-chic, just shabby. The setting could be anywhere – anyone familiar with government bureaucracy and secrecy of any kind can find much to delight them here. Anyone who's experienced a troublesome neighbour poking their nose in where it's not wanted will enjoy particular moments in the play. Certainly The Trial reminded me why it's so important to have things like the Freedom of Information Act, and transparent government in general (whether we do or not is an entirely different question, of course...).
A fine supporting cast keeps the action ticking over at a good pace. Kate O'Flynn excels in various roles including Josef K's friend and possibly love interest Rosa and as a female guard. Finally, the set itself (by Miriam Buether) is a triumph, a moving walkway which furnishes a constant stream of scene changes. It could also serve as a metaphor for the massive uphill treadmill that Josef K's life has become. The question is, will he succeed in getting off?