By Philip Glass & Christopher Hampton
Based on the novel by Franz Kafka
Oxford Playhouse, 3 November 2014
This is a democracy! It’s peacetime! We’re all subject to the rule of Law! What right have you to turn up in my bedroom? How dare you!
In this way begin the protestations of the tormented, bewildered everyman Josef K, a bank clerk arrested in his bedroom for unexplained reasons in the opening moments of Philip Glass’s reimagining of Kafka’s The Trial. The story is both a captivating illustration of bureaucratic nightmare and a classic tale of profound existential crisis. The defendant is unable to discover the crime of which he has been accused and the courts, which occupy almost every attic in the city, seem to be as chaotic and corrupt as their officers. Josef K seeks release in a series of traditional solutions to existential malaise, including in turn work, women, art, the Law, and finally the Church before rejecting all of these things and accepting his fate.
The Trial, which premiered at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera before a national tour last month, is the third Glass opera to be taken on by Music Theatre Wales, after The Fall of the House of Usher (1989) and a rendition of Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (2010). In the case of the latest collaboration, the novel was adapted by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement), whose faithful libretto captures both the irony and poignancy of the original with dialogue which is pithy and light of touch but also infused with potential hidden meanings.
One of the attractions of The Trial is that it feels as potent now as when Kafka first wrote it one hundred years ago. For the theatrical director Michael McCarthy, Kafka’s protagonist is “a study of modern man in a state of paranoia.” As a result, Josef K (Johnny Herford) vacillates between righteous indignation, temptation, and trusting innocence, and, like his fellow defendant Block (Michael Bennett), comes to be obsessively consumed by attempting to find out about his case. Other characters, meanwhile, are at pains to avoid taking too much responsibility for their own actions. Much here is familiar to the modern eye; as Glass remarks, “There’s nothing that would have to be changed in the script in order to bring it up to date […] in a world which has become so chaotic and bureaucratic, […] immoral and violent.”
The simplicity of production design further renders the story universal. “We’re going to place Josef K in a space,” says director McCarthy, “in which he’s almost being conducted through a social experiment, it’s like an ant being placed in a fish tank […]. [W]e’re going to completely disorientate him, play with his location.” The audience is submitted to this vision, for the sparse concrete set resembles nothing so much as a holding cell. Numerous doors and windows on mostly bare walls serve as a means of movement as well as portholes from which out-of-character cast members pointedly observe the action on stage. The resourceful lighting design by Ace McCarron carefully establishes setting and mood, and sketches unseen light sources and shadows alike to give depth to the stage. Basic objects serve to distinguish various settings, and the use of cast members to move props and furnishings encourages the idea that the world is moving wildly around the static, helpless, bewildered figure of Josef K.
That said, there is much humour in Kafka’s novel which the opera does much to exploit. Where the librettist has refined the dialogue for greater laughs, the composer adds sympathetic and sometimes archly funny music, for instance the kitsch, melodramatic musical swell following the exclamation in the first scene, “You can’t leave: you’re under arrest!” Beyond humour, though, there is also implicit, awkward historical irony in the face of this pre-totalitarian world: “We don’t put people on trial for no reason.”
Josef K is drawn more and more into the frustrating world of the Law and his case, which strangely results in neither prison nor what we would recognise as trial proceedings. Yet within this relative freedom, control, escape, and resolution are impossible; instead, Josef becomes a passive pawn at the whim of the wills and vicissitudes of others. Some work colleagues have knowledge of his arrest, and some significant action takes place at the bank. Josef’s Uncle Albert (Michael Druiett), despite a well-meaning offer of assistance, is responsible for taking him to the lawyer Huld (Gwion Thomas), who becomes the manipulative source of further intrigue. Interactions with women, played by Amanda Forbes and Rowan Hellier, have a constant sexual frisson, culminating in a romp with his lawyer’s nurse-cum-mistress. This escape route, too, is unsatisfactory. Neither is religion an answer: the penultimate scene is a long discourse between Josef K and the prison chaplain which establishes that altering the outcome of the trial is inconceivable.
With each iteration of the phrase “legal circles” in the second act it becomes clearer that the legal process and the society which suffuses it, are consigned to be circular, recursive, and repetitive, failing to make progress. In this production, circuitous movements of furniture and performers around what is noticeably the same room help to emphasise the fact that the courts and their activities are inescapable. In an interesting parallel the representative of artistic agency, the court painter Titorelli (Paul Curievici), in addition to offering scores of identical landscape paintings and inaccurate portraits of vain, junior judges, propounds an ersatz, inadequate substitute for progress: postponement of the trial rather than acquittal. This association of art with circularity, together with the fact that the exit from Titorelli’s studio leads to a corridor in the law courts, reveals that art contributes very little.
The naysaying listener might associate such circularity or lack of Affekt with the œuvre of Philip Glass himself. His work is sometimes dismissed, unfairly and unperceptively, for its apparent monotony and sameness (and, in fact, for its duplicable and seemingly identical techniques). But these qualities of gradual development and contrast from sameness here, as elsewhere, allow compositional ideas to be developed in the large-scale structure of works as well as through subtle rhythmic and harmonic variation.
The score of The Trial is at different moments oppressive and playful, with the contour of the dialogue and rhythmic mimicry of text-declamation in sung passages complemented by the composer’s signature repeated melodic intervals and regular pulse. Humourous and plaintive moments are suitably set: various settings of the word “underwear,” the rhythmic motif accompanying floor-scrubbing, and Fraulein Bürstner’s exclamation “No, go away, stop torturing me!” would not be out of place in lighter musical theatre. Equally, saccharine, legato strings led by a flute accompany the query “Heart playing up again?” at the sickbed of lawyer Huld, while accompaniment for the prison chaplain’s speech is as rich and flexible as the voice of dramatic bass-baritone Nicholas Folwell. The final, upsetting scene may seem to be a dramatic departure from the rest of the second act, resuming relentless progress towards the inevitable (“Tomorrow I would have been thirty-one. I’m not going one more step”) is characterised by hemiola, greatly expanded percussion, a mesmeric klezmer-like motif in the trumpet, and haunting vocalise before the brass stabs one last time through the texture.
The court “wants nothing from you,” says the prison chaplain, and “releases you as you go.” The end of The Trial is, in a sense, peripheral to the working-out of the proceedings, a departure from the legal circles that define life. Throughout the two-hour performance of The Trial the listener’s senses and understanding, normally calibrated for the blatant and literal, are re-fashioned through humour, irony, and Glass’s unusually diverse and innovative musical palette so that divergences from the pattern, from the established and quotidian, become even more noticeable, and like the ultimate verdict of all trials, the whole picture—sonic, moral, and relational—”is not suddenly pronounced, it slowly evolves from the proceedings.”
Matthew Cheung Salisbury  is lecturer in music at University College, Oxford.