The Trial

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Mary Brennan

four stars

OF COURSE we never learn what the charges were – and neither does Josef K. He’s arrested, persecuted, but never actually prosecuted. Unseen powers decide his fate. A century after he wrote it, Kafka’s Trial is still the stuff of nightmares: its fictional narrative is a current reality for thousands of individuals across our globe.

Does this Scottish Opera premiere of The Trial – composed by Philip Glass, with libretto by Christopher Hampton, in a co-commission with Music Theatre Wales – chill and unnerve us? In a cunningly insidious way, yes it does. Across ten sharply etched scenes, it evokes a system that corrupts, controls and punishes – all in the name of the law. Josef’s guilt lies in his naive belief that he has a degree of self-determination, a kind of unwitting arrogance well served by baritone Nicholas Lester.

Across two acts, The Trial plays out in the enclosed space of K’s room, where the sickly yellow walls of Simon Banham’s design have hidden doors and windows – veritable eyes and ears – with a constant to-ing and fro-ing of people idly spying on Josef, just like those neighbours who colluded with the Stasi. Of course they could also be asylum staff, and that single cell could be the paranoid brain of a man prone to absurd imaginings. Either way, director Michael McCarthy favours a kind of grotesquerie that is tinged with black humour, even as Glass’s score has its own witty asides woven through its mosaic of shifting styles. The orchestration, superbly delivered by a mere dozen players from Scottish Opera’s own orchestra, is like an underlying subtext revealing moods and emotions that almost contradict the characters’ own vocal lines. It is a brilliant, intricate reading of Kafka, with the cast of eight bringing fine colour to the monochrome hues of the production.