As a lover of theatre, but an amateur opera goer, I approached â€œThe Trialâ€ at the Kingâ€™s Theatre with rather wary caution. Philip Glass scores Franz Kafkaâ€¦.it could be a daunting combination.
Would this be a gloomy night of dissonant music, pessimistic nihilism, and heavy doom?
Not a bit of it – if all opera were as engrossing, accessible and enjoyable as this Iâ€™d go far more often. Playwright, Christopher Hampton, and Philip Glass have worked together to produce a satisfying libretto and score that complement and enhance each other perfectly. From the opening drum roll as Josef K embarks on his bewildering year of accusation and paranoia, the music carries us along with repeated little jaunty runs, and a recurrent brassy bassline that rumbles with suppressed menace. There is a mixture of styles here, from harmony to dissonance, cabaret to jazz, a touch of cinematic silent film score.
With the first appearance of the Chaplinesque bowler-hatted accusers thereâ€™s more than a hint of the absurd – how could there not be in such an absurd situation? For Josef K is accused of a crime he knows nothing about, and none of his accusers can enlighten him. There is a process to be followed through, and this process is self-fulfilling and self-sufficient. Facts about the case are absent and irrelevant.
Sung in English, with surtitles, this is an opera that is enjoyably followed closely in every nuance. Nicholas Lester is a splendid Josef K – confident, rational, sure of himself, until the sheer weariness and impossibility of battling with the warped logic of bureaucratic madness literally brings him to his knees. His psychological destruction at the hands of the priest – powerfully played by Paul Carey Jones – is dramatically projected in looming shadow form on to the minimalist set designed by Simon Banham. It is a claustrophobic space of hidden doors and windows, from which groups of onlookers constantly appear. The eyes of the system are everywhere and the talented cast of eight take on multiple roles.
There is so much to ponder in this production: bewildering bureaucracy, constant surveillance, invisible threat, lies as truth, an overwhelming sense of absurdity and farce dressed up as law and order. What can one do but laugh? And humour is most certainly here in this splendid production from Scottish Opera in collaboration with Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera and Theater Magdeburg.
Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
Photo Credits: James Glossop