Arts Review: Philip Glass’s The Trial

Dir. Michael McCarthy, Theatre Royal, 24th-28th January.

Kafka’s The Trial as an opera means combining an absurdist, paranoid novel with a theatrical, traditional, usually (in my mind, anyway) opulent medium. To most, it likely would not seem a natural combination. Yet Scottish Opera have created exactly that with Philip Glass’s new interpretation.

The performance seems largely faithful to the original, and adds to the dialogue with striking visual representations of the futility of defence. The staging is evidently excellently considered – from the simplicity of the set to the hugely effective lighting effects. At times, Nicholas Lester (Josef K.) is framed and exposed in full beams, as if in a police line-up, at others, long foreboding shadows trail across the backdrop. This, along with the near constant presence of at least one silent watchful figure, quite clearly shows the claustrophobic trap our protagonist finds himself in.

The score is unexpected, confusing, and instable – in short, perfect for this text. As in the novel, one is unsure of how to feel from one moment to the next. Is Josef K. in serious danger, or is this all just a farce? Is there a conspiracy against him, or do people simply not care? Lester does a fine job in portraying Josef’s flip-flopping personality – offish to despairing, weak-willed to principled. For me, the actors standing out are Daniel Norman and Paul Carey Jones, especially their imagined power and their degradation in the role of guards.

As an opera novice, the absence of any stand-alone songs and the unique style of singing took a little getting used to, but the skill and talent of the performers is evident even to this fairly ignorant mind. Aside from some monologues performed with passion and grit, the benefit of staging this as an opera was unfortunately a little lost on me. It isn’t apparent what advantage the opera would have over a play adaptation, or what the singing adds to the general effect.

However this shouldn’t take away from the intriguing and absorbing performance. Opera is a matter of taste, and I’m still on the fence about the art form itself, but this is an intelligent, measured, and enjoyable piece.

[Louise Wylie]

Photos by James Glossop

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