sun 14/07/2024

The Trial, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Studio Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Trial, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Studio Theatre

The Trial, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Studio Theatre

Glass's second Kafka opera can't quite find the same intensity as the first

Hell is other people: Josef K (Johnny Herford) finally submits to a cruel and illogical authority

According to the programme essay, Philip Glass describes his latest opera as “serious, but also hilariously funny”. All I can say is, if The Trial is his idea of thigh-slapping hilarity then never, ever let him pick the movie on a night out. Whether the humour’s failure to translate lies with score or production is hard to tell at a premiere, but my money lies with the former.

Philip Glass’s music can do many things: it can mesmerise and evolve, bully you into submission and seduce with its quietly shifting shapes, and it has a particularly nice line in ominous tension, as we saw in the composer’s previous Kafka-setting, In the Penal Colony. But comedy? Even the dark ironies and absurdities of this tale – hardly laugh-out-loud in the original – seem beyond the reach of Glass’s one-arpeggio-fits-all style. But senseless juxtapositions and illogical discontinuities? Those find a natural musical echo.

Glass finds new, Weill-inspired Weimar colours in his orchestration

There are some positives. Chuntering rhythms so beloved by Glass paint a bleakly mechanistic dystopia, clattering inexorably onwards even as the human debris of Josef K falls under their wheels. It’s a neat stylistic fit, and Glass does expand his musical language to find new, Weill-inspired Weimar colours in his orchestration (efficiently dispatched by the Music Theatre Wales ensemble). The effect is deliciously grotesque, heightened by Michael McCarthy’s stylized and stylish direction.

Characters are exaggerated, stretched from naturalistic beginnings into their uncanny doubles – familiar, but not quite normal. Clad in monochromes, their faces pop with the primary-coloured emotions of marionettes, and the double – occasionally even triple – casting adds a strange discomfort to this world of unsettling echoes and repetitions, as the same figures return again and again in different guises to torment Josef.

At the centre of the madness is Johnny Herford’s Josef K (pictured right with Paul Curievici). His is a lovely, flexible baritone, and though Glass’s lines gives him little opportunity to get his teeth into anything sustained, the voice still finds enough personality, enough humanity, to persuade us to invest in this luckless everyman.

He is supported by a fine cast, including Amanda Forbes (Fraülein Bürstner/Leni), who supplies some of most nearly-comic moments of the evening, seducing with an instinctive and earthy vacuity that quite disarms the young bank manager. Paul Curievici finds the same manic intensity to painter Titorelli that he brought to John Worthing in Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and Michael Bennett and Nicholas Folwell (pictured below) make a fine double-act as luckless guards Franz and Willem.

So much of the energy, the charm even, of Kafka’s original is in wry tone of the authorial commentary. To translate it for stage then is to sacrifice character for drama – a trade that doesn’t altogether add up. Christopher Hampton’s libretto is serviceable, if occasionally a little wordy. Glass sets language no more idiomatically than usual, and the result is phrases and melodies that tussle at cross-purposes, distracting from the bladed precision of Kafka’s story. Fortunately Simon Banham’s designs keep things as elegantly simple as we’ve come to expect from Music Theatre Wales.

Two operas later, Philip Glass’s affinity for Kafka (and MTW’s affinity for Glass) are evident. But while In the Penal Colony has an unyielding musical intensity that supplements and enlarges the horror of the original, The Trial seems to lose more than it gains in operatic translation. I can imagine no finer advocates for the work than Music Theatre Wales, and if they can’t make it work then I struggle to imagine a company that can.

The Trial seems to lose more than it gains in Glass's operatic translation


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article


I think the reviewer must have been having a bad day as The Trial was a well-crafted, deeply satisfying evening of music theatre, strong characterisation and, yes, lots of Kafka's troubling humour. '

A very satisfying evening with the humour well in evidence. Music and singing excellent

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters