Bringing Franz Kafka to the stage: Royal Swedish Ballet in The Trial

Opera House, Stockholm
May 17, 2019

Maggie Foyer

Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, is a convoluted tale of blind alleys and constant frustration and Jiří Bubeníček has no easy task in transferring it to the stage. Despite the title, the ballet is as much about the life of Kafka, the themes of his books and his troubled relationship with women. It’s more than one evening can deal with and so struggles to find a dramatic focus.

The two acts of around 50 minutes each are packed with detail in the choreography, the characters and the design as Bubeníček moves between literary works and biographical detail. Josef K’s situation is terrifying, a bureaucratic nightmare but portrayed in surreal absurdity, the diversions beguile and dissipate the terror. The cavalcade of characters moves the action along at a speedy pace and in the mayhem, the madness of the Finnish men’s screaming choir, Huutajat, is an inspired partnership.

The Trial by Jiří Bubeníček(dancers: Hampus Gauffin, Samuele Ninci, Julien Keulen, Arsen Mehrabyan (on the floor), Jonatan Davidsson, Hiroaki Ishida, Otmar Klemann)Photo Sören Vilks
The Trial by Jiří Bubeníček
(dancers: Hampus Gauffin, Samuele Ninci, Julien Keulen,
Arsen Mehrabyan (on the floor), Jonatan Davidsson,
Hiroaki Ishida, Otmar Klemann)
Photo Sören Vilks

Arsen Mehrabyan, has the challenging role of Josef K. He is on stage for most of the evening and maintains a quiet, stoical presence. At times he hits back, fighting against the faceless bureaucracy but most often he is the victim. Josef K, as the archetypal loser, lacks the bravura and bombast of most heroic figures and even his death is ignominious: a mundane stabbing in a quarry.

Among the many characters, Jérôme Marchand has bagged two of the best. First as the flamboyant painter, Titorelli, with his bevy of models, all semi-dressed and sporting wild hair, dancing in tow. They are unable to distract Josef K and serve only to increase his sense of alienation. Then in the final scenes as the Priest he provokes a pivotal moment. The Priest should be offering solace, but while he briefly embraces Josef K, he remains a figure of dominant authority that Josef K is unable to engage with in any productive manner. Marchand’s powerful physical presence and athletic ability, contrasts strongly with Mehrabyan’s dejected form. Both were used effectively to explore the ambivalence of Josef K’s relationship with the power making this scene one of the most potent in the evening.

Kafka, writing in the early years of the twentieth century, had an equivocal attitude towards women, both desiring and fearing intimacy. In Bubeníček’s ballet, they provide lively interludes predominantly in the ‘tart with a heart’ genre. Minji Nam as Leni, nurse/ consort to the sleazy lawyer, Huld, has a rampaging libido and surprising underwear decorated with a weird winged insect. She bubbles like champagne but terrifies Josef K. Desislava Stoeva, as Fräulein Bürstner, projects a serious demeanour while wearing red heels and a red chili pepper in her hair and gets a kiss for her efforts. Daria Ivanova, as the Usher’s Wife, is an appealing mix of pink-frilled vulnerability and scarlet-knickered boldness, finding considerable depth in what could so easily be yet another female stereotype.

Kafka’s faceless proletariat appear incongruously in many guises. First dressed in black/ white checkerboard costumes with faces masked, they background J K’s phone call – on a line dropped from the flies – to announce the date of his trial. In the court, now in drab grey with cushions hats, they could be the gullible masses who retain the imprint of the last bottom that sat on them. To add to the chaos, the screaming Huutajat join in, reciting the text on the backdrop.

The designs, set by Otto Bubeníček and costumes by Nadina Cojocaru, have expressionistic punch with a surreal flavour. Walls are askance, entrances are made through apertures in the backdrop, and the score is a crazy melange of everything from Alfred Schnittke to klezmer, bravely kept in order by guest conductor, Koen Kessels. It’s an intelligent, production with a great deal of forethought that adds up to a full evening of dance drama. The detail is finely crafted, but the sheer abundance negates the essence of Kafka’s novel: the banality of uncaring bureaucracy. It’s a stimulating evening but maybe not Kafka’s Trial.