The idea of doing Kafka’s The Trial as an interactive play seems, on the face of it, both really exciting and a bit scary. It’s a well known work of literature, but I’m far away from when I read it, and I decided I didn’t want to contaminate my experience by comparing it too closely with the source material; I just wanted to see how it held up as a work of art on its own (or as an experiential performance, to be more accurate). I’d been to see the first half a month earlier, and left, slightly confused (I was unsure that it had ended) with an appointment card to the next stage of the event: the trial itself.
Part Two of The Trial starts at the Department for Digital Privacy (tucked in, I think, an underused government building not too far from Hagerston train station). The waiting room is full of a much more attractive version of bored governmental functionaries than I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in my many encounters with the slightly hostile bureaucrats staffing the UK Borders Agency. We, some five or six of us, were jammed in with too few seats, while some of us were checked in, some were wanded down, and … er, there was some other things taking place, but overall, the feeling was of the group of people who do work without thinking about what the consequences are to them other than possibly losing their pension if they don’t stick to the rules, whatever they may be.
Once I was finally “processed” at intake, my real journey began. My suspicions are that what I was doing was somehow mirroring the plot of the trial itself … friendly people not in the system … being told by a chipper departmental functionary I’d been flagged as guilty and needing to be punished, not because of any crime I’d committed, but because of an analysis of my propensity to do illegal behavior … a room with a bit of food … something read to me too quickly to be understood …
I knew other people were likely doing these things both right behind me and in parallel, and that each person in each room was having to go through a fairly set script. But I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Was I, as the protagonist, only allowed to take the position of Josef K, of protesting my innocence? I decided that it was better for me to say yes, I was wrong, and for the good of society it was best that I be dealt with appropriately and according to the laws of the land. In some ways, this is because I’ve been dealing with so much bureaucracy since I became an immigrant, and read so many things telling me about my guilt “as an immigrant” for ruining the UK, and how I need to follow every pointless rule that exists to the letter, that I’ve given up fighting for my rights. I’ve been trained to placate the bureaucrats. And somehow, I think, my approach was throwing off the actors. The happy ones dimmed, the evil ones softened, the hard core rules mongers seemed not to know how to maintain their place in this different society.
Unfortunately because of the feeling I was just moving through rooms full of actors, I was never able to completely plug in to the experience, and when we got to the final scene, I felt pretty clear about how the audience was being managed. Ultimately, as a polemic against the all-seeing eye of the state, Retz’s The Trial was fairly pointed – but it didn’t succeed in taking me to another world. Perhaps it’s because in a world filled with actors, I screwed things up by not knowing the script. I accept the verdict: guilty as charged.
(This review is for a performance that took place on April 4, 2013. It continues through April 27th. Tickets can be booked through the Barbican web site.)