Reviews for Friends #11: The Trial

Hats off to a striking, confident and memorable - albeit a little off-key - pocket opera.

Opera virgin that I was, I really didn’t know what to expect from this production. The combination of Franz Kakfa, Philip Glass and Music Theatre Wales was always going to bear strange fruit, and The Rep Birmingham crowd were clearly expecting something special - a sell-out on a rainy Monday night, the was electric.

I had naively hoped for a play with musical accompaniment, but what I got was what Glass has referred to as a pocket opera; “Neutron bombs - small, but packing a terrific punch.” And he’s right - once you overcome the constant singing (which at first I found alien, and really quite distracting) the taut performance draws you in.

Kafka’s tale of Josef K, arrested on his 30th birthday by an unknown authority for an unspecified crime, is a famously dark farce layered with chaotic paranoia. The monotonous music, dull and forgetful throughout before at times being woken up with punches of strange jollity, delivered a blackly comic mood.

Playwright Christopher Hampton has crafted an almost mechanical narrative to bring the story to the stage, and whilst I initially found this overly simplistic (yet crucial in allowing me to understand what words were actually being sung…) after a while I began to enjoy the way it echoed the original story. The robotic and sometimes childlike language cleverly reinforced the situation the protagonist found himself in.

The energetic cast - all clad in monochrome, the ladies in farcical stockings and suspenders, -gallantly threw themselves around a sparse, cold set that was all unforgiving wire and stone. For me, this physicality spoke louder than the dialogue and music combined. The hunched shoulders, rigid arms and bowed head of Josef K, arrestingly played by British Baritone, Johnny Herford. The desperate lurching of his friends and family trying to get him to see the seriousness of his predicament. The women in his life, humorously realised by Rowan Hellier and Amanda Forbes, hurtling themselves at the male cast members, legs akimbo - apparently finding the accused irresistible.

Versatile staging - voyeuristic crevices, windows and concealed doors - allowed for claustrophobic bodies to clamour throughout, someone always watching. The lighting was sublime. Hitchcockian shadows cast about the place, particularly during the penultimate scene of the priest’s aria, are a reason alone to see this production.

It was very funny in places - with their comedy facial hair the two law officials brought to mind images of the Thompson Twins from Tintin. But while I appreciated the way in which all elements of the production came together to bring Kafka’s dark brand of humour to the stage, it felt perhaps a little too light of touch for me. I would have liked to have had more of the sparsely menacing scores that were arranged for the opening and closing scenes. And probably a little less singing - but then that’s operas for you. Even pocket ones.


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