Franz Kafka’s novella “The Trial” gets the Richard Jones treatment at the Young Vic — that is to say, the director whizzes it into a far-out psychedelic loop-de-loop that does it no favors. Josef K (Rory Kinnear), who wakes up one morning to find himself under arrest for no apparent reason, becomes two things at once: the sort of white-male, white-collar pro driving society onwards and, at the same time, a victim of the very same system, a man in the middle of a massive nervous breakdown. Do we blame him or pity him? Jones asks us to judge.
Designer Miriam Buether places the audience in two plywood seating banks, looking on like so many jurors, on either side of a traverse stage. The floor whirs into life, a travelator that is at once a conveyor belt and a treadmill. Plagued by increasing piles of paperwork, K has to keep moving just to stay still. All the while retro furniture glides past, spewed out at one end and swallowed up at the other.
Conceptually, it’s a masterstroke, a neat encapsulation of the consumer-capitalist ratrace. Just as he has no idea what he’s been arrested for, K has no sense of purpose in particular. He has risen to Vice-President at his bank, but to what end? Like Everyman (whose story is still in rep at the National), he suddenly needs to account for himself and he comes up with nothing. All the while, his anxiety’s rising and what you see is a very modern meltdown: a man, overworked and undervalued (not least by himself), pushed to the point of complete nervous collapse. Sweating and flustered, he’s urban anomie in human form.
Rather than blame the system, K heaps the blame on himself. So, initially, do we. He’s a banker with a fondness for lap dances, after all. Kate O’Flynn (“Mr. Turner,” “Happy-Go-Lucky”), always a delight to watch, plays a string of women, working through more wigs than a Katy Perry concert. Among them, she’s Rosa next door, with whom K’s besotted; a teenage fangirl in gym shorts; and an Eastern European cleaner, bum in the air, head down the loo, begging K to help her escape. “I could f— you right now,” they all purr. To his shame, K knows they’re right.
Kinnear looks like the perfect pen pusher. Bald before his time and forever mopping his brow, his K channels all the charisma of a blancmange in a blazer. He is default male, middle-aged white and well-spoken, but he’s also brittle, self-loathing and terrified of talking to women.
However, for all he looks the part, Kinnear is very nearly miscast. His skill has always been guiding us through a thought process, no matter how convoluted or contradictory. He’s made Hamlet’s meanderings and Iago’s motives quite clear. That domed forehead of his implies the whirring of cogs.
However, K’s cogs don’t whir, they overheat. He’s nothing but exasperated confusion, a man swept along by events, increasingly bewildered, who arrives at no answers and hatches no plans, thus robbing the actor of his strongest suit. That K speaks his thoughts aloud in adaptor Nick Gill’s Joycean shorthand (“procrast no more”) further disarms the actor. Instead, Kinnear is reduced to flapping, a Basil Fawlty without the apoplexy.
That’s partly why returns diminish. Jones and Buether bombard poor Josef K with zaniness upon zaniness, so that Kafka’s legal bureaucrats become a cavalcade of oddballs and fruit loops: arresting officers with perms and overbites, tattoo parlor judges performing Europop dance routines, a lawyer (Sian Thomas) straight out of “The Stepford Wives.” The aim is psychedelic expressionism with a big hit of Lynchian lunacy, but it’s all much of a muchness, desperately in need of a humdrum counterweight. The instinct to confuse reality with K’s perception of it is right, but in making his world as bizarre as any hallucination, Jones and Buether go about it all wrong.
This is the Jones/Buether way, and it’s fair to say that it never quite works. As with their previous Young Vic collaborations, “The Government Inspector” and “An Enemy of the People,” everything is garish and outlandish but, above all else, it’s effortful. Yes, each individual crackpot gets a laugh, but if the intended effect is disorientation, the actual result is more often distraction. There’s so much going on — so many fidgets and tics, so many outré wigs and clashing patterns — that it’s hard just to listen. The travelator keeps spewing out the next scene and, rather than find a choreography to make best use of the conveyor belt (think OK Go or “Fuerzabruta”), the production lets one of the most inventive designs in ages go to waste. Not a complete trial then, but certainly trying.