Talking Movies

June 15, 2016

The Trial

Disorientation seems to be an aim of No Drama’s production of Kafka’s The Trial. And from the issuing of pencils and paper on arrival for your first plea, to the actors running offstage eschewing a bow, disorientation is certainly achieved.

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Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K (Daniel O’Brien), for he wakes up one morning in his boarding house to find instead of breakfast a brace of mysterious warders (Elaine Fahey, Amélie Laguillon) searching his room. Their senior supervisor (Greg Freegrove) tells K he’s been arrested, but this shouldn’t interfere with K’s work as a senior clerk at the bank; so long as he can make time on Sundays and evenings for interrogation. The charge…? Well, the supervisor’s not authorised to discuss such matters; best take that up with the judge. So begins K’s nightmarish journey thru the gallery of grotesques that surround the Law. ‘Helped’ by the enfeebled Advocate Huld (Louise Dunne), her degraded client eternal client Block and sultry nurse Leni (Sarah Maloney), and the court portrait artist Titorelli (Nikhil Dubey), it is little wonder he despairs.

There are memorable sequences; K’s decision to fire Huld being celebrated by means of a mid-90s rock-out, the actors pairing off and walking back and forth in a muted dance while narration and light jumps between actors. And some fine performances. O’Brien is initially over-indignant, but reins it in for an engagingly desperate K. Dunne eschews the usual hypochondriac bombast Huld, giving us genuine infirmity with a rasping whisper and outraged anger. Freegrove amusingly channels Berkoff as the menacing supervisor, Maloney vamps it up as Leni, and Siobhan Hickey is vivacious and knowing as K’s crush. But No Drama’s production runs for 2 hours 45 minutes with a 10 minute interval, as compared to the Young Vic’s 2015 The Trial which clocked in at 2 hours without an interval. This is absurdly long, and the good performances and sequences get lost in an increasing muddle.

Directors Noel Cahill and David Breen have crafted a very loud interpretation. Eardrums will be ringing from 10 people consistently shouting by the time the court chaplain climactically bawls at the audience mere inches away. The most effective moments are actually the quietest; Huld’s monologues, K’s isolation, or the chorus’ whispered “Josef K”; and starting out turned up to 11 leaves the show nowhere to go. The trip-hop musical introduction outstays its welcome, and a bit of business with everyone hanging on K’s words is protracted beyond the point of comedy – both emblematic of pacing problems that cannot all be blamed on the script. As for the script… The legendary travelator of Richard Jones’ Young Vic staging is obviously beyond the budget of an amateur company, but if the essential elements of Berkoff’s minimalist script (screens, costumes, and all actors save K to have their faces painted) are abandoned, is it really still Berkoff’s adaptation?

There is an astonishingly literal interpretation of K stumbling on pornographic pictures in the court which is far from the mime Berkoff intended. Reducing your staging to a rope, glasses, and one costumed actor in such a difficult space as the Boys School is self-defeating. An ecstatic Dramsoc production of East from Anna Simpson with future Fast Intent founder Nessa Matthews relied on basic props and costumes before launching into outré physicality. Far too often here attempting Berkoff’s physicality after abandoning his supports results in endless busyness of unclear meaning – shouting “I’m a train” may be funny but sadly it’s not redundant when the specified identifiers for it have been discarded. And can Kafka be Kafka if it’s not (to misapply Peter O’Toole’s Ruling Class descriptor) ‘black comedy with tragic relief’? All the elements of Kafka and Berkoff are present, but they do not cohere: we end up with neither paranoid hilarity nor expressionist vim.

The ensemble display admirable commitment and energy, but having set aside so much of Berkoff’s blueprint this production’s continued insistence on presenting a version of his physical theatre almost always gets in the way of this being good theatre.

2/5

The Trial continues its run at Smock Alley until the 18th of June.

September 5, 2014

The Actor’s Lament

Actor Steven Berkoff returns to writing verse drama for the first time in decades with this entertaining if slight production.

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Berkoff is an actor recovering from hostile reviews of his first outing as a playwright. Licking his wounds, he is comforted by the kind words of his playwright friend played by Jay Benedict, who insists he is a fantastic actor and the critics could not forgive his presumption. And the mutual flattery escalates even further when their actress friend played by Andree Bernard arrives, to be told what a great artiste she is; even if she is understudying a soap star on the West End. And then things kick off into not so much a lament as a tirade, at the state of the West End, the cult of theatre directors, the arrogance of playwrights, and, above all, the agony of the actor’s life and the importance of what they do night after night; for themselves and for the audience.

That might sound a bit off-putting, but this splenetic hour is filled with humour and self-awareness. Berkoff knows that an actor turned playwright moaning about revivals in the West End, and how directors like them because they get a cut of the proceeds, will seem dangerously like personal carping by Berkoff himself. And so he turns it up to 11: we get Berkoff moving himself to tears over the West End being a morgue; “Poor Chekhov dragged out again, leave the poor bloody sod alone”; full of clueless screen actors; “If you don’t remember your lines you do it fifty more bloody times. But in theatre there is only one take, and it goes on all night, every night, until you get it right!”; while dedicated actors like Berkoff and Bernard are left on the scrapheap, abandoned even by Benedict.

Berkoff’s use of verse is not like Joss Whedon’s use of rhyme in his musicals. You’re rarely waiting for a pay-off from a Berkoff line, instead it sounds like normal speech with the occasional unexpected rhyme. And, performed on a bare stage, with only an ornate chair for decoration, the focus is on the physical theatre Berkoff perfected after studying at the Lecoq school in Paris; so well displayed in Ballyturk some weeks back by a younger veteran of that school, Mikel Murfi. Imaginary cigarettes are lit with hands where the thumb waggles for the flame of a lighter. Othello, Macbeth, and Lear come to life for a few lines by dint of a change in posture and tone of voice. Berkoff ages himself by stooping and playing deaf. Indeed by the end Berkoff, age 77, was drenched in sweat…

The Actor’s Lament is a late and almost disappointingly short work from a master, but, while his age precludes the full powerhouse style of his youth, his physical theatre is still to be revered.

3/5

The Actor’s Lament continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until September 6th.

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