Review: The Trial

by Jane

Josef K (Ewan Leslie), awakes one day to find out he is under arrest.  For what, the arresting officers cannot say, but he is free to go about his life, until he must present for his trial.  From there, Josef K’s life proceeds to spiral out of control, as the impasse of being persecuted by an unknown power, for an unknown crime, takes over and destroys.  Kafka’s The Trial, adapted by Louise Fox and directed by Matthew Lutton, is an uncomfortable and inexplicably satisfying play.

Inexplicable, because as you can see from that lack-lustre of a plot summary, the nature of this story and its themes are hard to pin down and identify.  Yet, the collection of elements gives way to a fantastical production, helped in no small part by Leslie, who won his latest Helpmann for  Richard III as I wrote this.  Leslie gave a huddled performance, a man who was hushed and nearly defeated by life itself before we meet him, who becomes unquiet and tense as the absurdity of his trial takes its toll.  Simply a beautiful actor to watch, he has an energy which feeds into the audience, and carries the play.

Ewen Leslie as Josef K. He also, really distractedly, reminded me of my friend so much in mannerisms.

In the other absolute strength of The Trial, Kelly Ryall sound design and Ash Gibson Greig’s composition has created a soundscape which is harsh and despotic, as sound exists behind the stage or a small pocket, before enveloping the theatre. The stall’s seating in the Merlyn theatre is built on a metal frame, and with every crank of Ryall’s sound design, I felt like my seat was shifting: moving in and out with the set itself.  The most overwhelming and deft sound design I have ever experienced.

Set by Claude Marcos is deconstructed from start to finish: from where there was a lush bedroom, a set surrounded by sultry velvet drapes, comes a barren, austere, and cold world of wood, almost as if the set flats were left untouched.  All opulence of a theatre production has been stripped, revealing the raw materials of the set, as all affluence of Josef K’s life is removed.   On a revolve, and with a huge crack, the set starts to spin as we delve further into the trial.  Spinning at an uncomfortable pace, it is a near sickening sight.

Before the absolute destruction.

The lighting is dynamic, and, much as in the set design becomes harsh and unforgiving; literally shining an unfortunate light on the destruction of Josef K.  At one point, the lights of the theatre completely cut out, and I’m not even entirely sure if this was a part of the play or a fortunate coincidence – which speaks loudly for the quality of the piece: the awkwardness and uncomfortableness which came from being plunged into sudden darkness, in the middle of a scene, could have just as easily been part of the story as a mistake.

While Leslie plays only Josef K, the remaining six ensemble members share many roles.  The different characters played by each actor are not always clearly distinguished from each other, but perhaps that is the point, only serving to add to the uncertainty.  This confusion is highlighted when the actors playing characters swap, even several times in one scene, as the role of Leni becomes split between Rita Kalnejais and Belinda McClory.

I didn’t know the story going in.  I haven’t read the book or seen the film adaptations.  Unfortunately, coming out, I’m still not sure I know the story: an overview, certainly, the details is what I doubt.  Obscured to the point of near incomprehension at points, but it is not the story or script of The Trial which carries this production.  It is the illness inspiring set, the graduations in Ewan Leslie’s performance, the overbearing sound design, the harsh and changing lights.   For in the near abstruse whole, beyond this façade I still fail to permeate, there was an absolute truth to the constructed world.  A truth which settled into my bones, into my heart, and into my stomach.  And, at times, it was terrifying; made all the more so because it isn’t a truth you can explain, but simply one which you feel.

These feelings weren’t constant throughout the production: it took a long while to build and for me to connect, tension often dropped off, and in these moments the play could slow too much, with Fox and Lutton losing focus and direction.   But for these flaws, the power that it held in its strengths left me with a satisfaction that grew over the week and a half since I saw it.

Set by Claude Marcos.

I am glad that my life got so busy, that other things had to take precedence, because as I sit here grappling with my thoughts I realise that it this play is still being sorted in my brain.  In particular, the final scenes, a series of tableaus: stripped back, raw, aching, and pitch perfect.  It will be sitting on my heart for a long time.

Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, and ThinIce present The Trial adapted by Louise Fox from the Novel by Franz Kafka.  Directed by Matthew Lutton, set design by Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition by Ash Gibson Greig, sound deign by Kelly Ryall.  With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael, and Igor Sas.


Melbourne season closed.  In Sydney 9 September – 16 October, Perth 22 – 30 October.


As an addendum to the review: this was my first time at Malthouse, and it is such a wonderful theatre.  The theatres come straight of the bar, where I had drinks before and after.  There is a great atmosphere, and everyone seemed lovely.  They are also lovely, because when I tweeted left my program on the plane and had the gall to ask Malthouse for another, they offered straight away!  I found it a very exciting thing to find in the post.  And, really, I earned the extra copy, because clearly whoever sat in that plane seat after me found it and were promptly inspired to buy a ticket.  Because that’s how people exist in my head.