Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Trial

Philip Glass / Music Theatre Wales , Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London , October 18, 2014
The Trial by Philip Glass  / Music Theatre Wales Perhaps precisely because it is not an overblown, vastly publicly-funded company that is ripped between its grandiose ambitions to make a mark with the chattering classes and serve what its audiences actually want, Music Theatre Wales actually achieves both.

Yet again the small but exquisitely formed company has thrust Wales into the spotlight of operatic creativity with a deliciously restrained, splendidly crafted production of a new work given its world premiere at London’s Royal Opera House before touring Wales and England.

The Trial is based on Franz Kafka’s seminal work and turned into an opera by playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton and the doyen of accessible, adventurous and highly distinctive music, the composer Philip Glass.

The reason or the success compared with some other companies? There is no excess, no huge budget production affectations, the ideas are there but not pretentious and there in this story of alienation and lack of comprehension, there is nothing to distance the audience.

Now I would not rank this two-act chamber opera as the finest musical output from Glass and it probably does not stand alone as a musical score but as the soundtrack of a piece of theatre that tackles Kafka’s 1914 novel Der Process (The Trial) that charts the downwards spiral of an ordinary man arrested and prosecuted by an unidentified authority for an equally unidentified crime, it is highly effective and musically adroit.

Glass’s music captures the shifts between bravado and the sense of paranoia, bemusement and utter horror, sexual and emotional delight and repulsion, and the suffocation of isolation within an inescapable system. Spaces and perspectives within Simon Banham’s designs are atmospherically created by lighting designer Ace McCarron.

Michael McCarthy directs the cast of eight singers within a suitably claustrophobic set where the players can look in through windows and doors but the accused, Josef K., excellently sung and acted by Johnny Herford, cannot escape. Herford is ideal as the seemingly normal man who cannot understand or accept the Catch 22 situation he is within. He is matched with two glorious women who rise to the dramatic as well as the vocal requirements, soprano Amanda Forbes as Leni and mezzo Rowan Hellier as the Washerwoman.

As the old semi-bedridden Lawyer Huld and also the Magistrate, MTW’s stalwart Gwion Thomas creates two captivating characterisations. Bass Michael Druiett takes on two roles with aplomb, the bombastic Inspector and larger than life Uncle.

Tenor Michal Bennett sings Franz, one of the two guards and is also the feeble Block who, in contrast to Josef K., accepts his predicament and humbles himself when under arrest. The other half of the pair of guards, Willem, is Nicholas Folwell who also takes the roles of Usher, Priest and Clerk of the Court. One of the most delightful sections of the macabre tale is in the studio of the artist Titorelli marvellously acted and sung by tenor Paul Curievici.

The English is always perfectly understandable and there was really no need for surtitles. The opera stands on its own as a work but I found knowing the novel helped understand aspects of McCarthy’s production, particularly the horrific surrealistic humour. When Josef K. finally accepts he is to be put down like a dog (the first act ends with the guards being beaten and howling like dogs) the pathos of the conclusion delivers. The company’s music director Michael Rafferty clearly delights is conducting Glass’s score with his 12 player ensemble.

This is a co-production with The Royal Opera, Theater Magdeburg and Scottish Opera.

The Welsh dates of The Trial are Aberystwyth Arts Centre on October 28; Sherman Theatre, Cardiff on November 7 and Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold on November 9. It also plays The Royal Northern College of Music, October 22; Oxford Playhouse, November 3; The Anvil, Basingstoke, November 4 and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, November 10.

Reviewed by: Mike Smith

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