As the actors took their bows, I applauded loudly, marvelling at the performance of Rory Kinnear as Josef K., a banker who is woken on his thirty-fifth birthday with the news of his arrest on unspecified charges and thus plunged into a nightmare of senseless, humiliating and ultimately futile judicial proceedings.
Yet navigating the subterranean passageways in Bank station on my way home, I felt as if I perhaps hadn’t left the theatre at all. Hustled along seemingly interminable walkways and shunted onto escalators by the crush of city commuters, the air heavy with heat, increasingly doubtful that I would ever reach my desired destination, I pondered the remarkable resemblance between my world and that of K., Kafka’s century-old protagonist.
Indeed, the strength of Nick Gill’s adaptation of Kafka’s 1915 unfinished novel is in its evocation of the modern condition, epitomised by the powerlessness of individuals in the face of overweening bureaucracy and the incessant treadmill of everyday life. The stage was transformed into a giant travelator for the production – both a neat means of changing sets and a multi-layered metaphor for both K.’s life and our own. As the ground moves unpredictably beneath his feet, K. is repeatedly confronted with unexpected faces and spaces, thrust into illogical situations he did not desire and cannot control.
Yet the play falls down in its over-simplification of K.’s guilt. Sexuality is a central and often overlooked theme in Kafka’s novel. Yet in Gill’s adaptation it was all-pervasive – the play even opened with a brief scene of K. leering at an erotic dancer before stumbling drunkenly home to bed. Later, the writing of his petition, which he believes will absolve him and involves the explication of every questionable event in his life, is accompanied by K.’s own musings on sexually charged events in his youth. We are invited to conclude that K.’s guilt is related to his sexual behaviours.
Yet the strength of the discussion of guilt in the novel comes from its lack of specificity – K. is guilty, it seems, by the mere fact of existing and can therefore never be absolved, except through death. This theme, echoing throughout his novels, stories, fragments and diaries, reflects one of Kafka’s most painful struggles. Throughout his short life, he grappled with a sometimes debilitating sense of his own guilt and low self-worth, frequently giving voice to his despair in his diaries. On 14 February 1914 he wrote, ‘There will certainly be no one to blame if I should kill myself […] I belong down there.’
Perhaps questions of our inherent guilt or sinfulness are less relevant today, in an increasingly secular society, than they were a century ago. Yet conversations about our essential fallibility and imperfection as human beings are always pertinent – I for one am disappointed that the chance was not taken to begin one at The Young Vic this summer.
By Judith Vonberg