This was no ‘Trial’ - this was a positive triumph...
Having accepted that we are all living in interesting times, what better play to explore our confusion in the face of a seemingly senseless world? Plague? War? Corruption? No idea what’s going on? Bring on Kafka, bring on poor old K, standing in as a beaten down everyman, battling the forces of corruption at every level of power. What makes Berkoff’s adaptation of this seminal text so powerful and relevant to this day, is that it works fundamentally as a company piece – and, boy, did this accomplished company, under that masterful direction of James and his co-director Andy, do justice to the text.
From the opening moments the mood was one of simple contrasts, black and white, light and shadow, inclusion and exclusion, knowing and not knowing. The choreography was mesmerising: a collage of limbs and faces and voices behind and between smoke and screens (an apt pun?), boards and roles. From first to last the action spins around the increasingly cowed and bowed Josef K played by an impressive Albie Redding, defined by his symbolic red tie and tremulous protestations of an innocence that even he ultimately seems to doubt. But the whirling company really drives the energy on stage, foregrounding his isolation and vulnerability. This self-satisfied company of tormentors parade and flaunt their empowerment through the hypocrisy of the law, religion, patriarchy, culture and gender. Meadow, Millie, Izzy and Bea offered us in their different ways a deliciously nasty variety of sinister sirens: drawn to the apparent sexiness of corruption, they hovered vulture-like on the edge of K’s persecution. No sisters of mercies these: more Madame Defarge knitting at the foot of the guillotine. Equally Cole, Felix, Otto and Luke suggested between them the horrific latent violence of masculinity, collusive and collective and unfeeling: his suffering protects them and keeps them out of reach. Even art itself, in the form of Zaza’s mock-comic artist, could bring colour to the angular grid of lines that flooded the stage, but alas, no real redemption.
The stage buzzed with stylised violence and a kind of symbolic dance of group conformity and cruel marginalisation. Stripped to bare essentials, the central props – straight, intransigent, uniform planks – defined and defended the company insiders. Ever-present and always threatening, they were variously shields, hiding places, weapons, partners in a kind of danse macabre that intimidated and excluded K, shaping doorways that denied entrance, bridges and fences, steps and stands foregrounding power and vulnerability, ominous trains to wheel him away, the torturer’s bench, prison bars that confined, enclosed and finally and inevitably crucified him. The music enlarged the sense of its central European context: from the loaded symbolism of Prague’s ‘burning violin’ hinting at a world of poignant cultural energy, to the rising crescendos of Mozart’s passionate Lacrimosa, mourning that which we have all lost, we were never far from the eternal human struggle to survive. A play for the Easter season? Certainly. A play for a world struggling with corruption, hypocrisy, mindless cruelty and suffering? Yes. But this is Hurtwood – so let’s have some laughs and slapstick on the way. Well done, Andy and James: you kept the stage jumping and facilitated great performances all round.
Sadly for us all at Hurtwood, this is James’ swan-song so it seems appropriate to add that this is an impressive bookend to the first piece of serious theatre that I witnessed at Hurtwood. This featured James as Macbeth, a fallen angel in a thrillingly brutal production directed by Andy, over three decades ago and long, long before this talented young company were even dreamed of. The wheels keep turning and the beat goes on in our magic box, in what Richard proudly refers to as our ‘battered and bullet-ridden’ acting space. Hurrah for Hurtwood Theatre, I say, for its illumination of the human experience, and for all who have so much creative fun in her. And James – see you on down the road. You know you will come back.