Scottish Opera’s The Trial at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh is an adaptation of the classic early 20th century work by Franz Kafka. With a libretto by Christopher Hampton and music by Philip Glass, this third collaboration between the two gives us an opera that retains the essence of the original story while at the same time giving us as an audience a production that through some black humour and other references makes us look at the relevance of events on stage to our contemporary world – both in the grim reality of it and the sheer absurdity of it.
There are many reasons to go and see this performance – you might be a follower of Kafka’s writing, like me a liker of the work of Philip Glass, or simply just to support Scottish Opera with their bold vision to keep performing and creating new works that fall well outside of what many people’s conventional idea of an “evening at the opera” will be like.
This production of “The Trial” could easily have been a very dark and grim performance (and let’s face it, out of all the art forms out there, Opera probably can do “dark and grim” better than most), but it is far from that. There is an element of black comedy running through this story mixed in with an almost Alice as she enters Wonderland incomprehension of the world around her that our accused bank manager Josef K feels as he is accused of a crime no one will tell him about and put on trial by a court system that seems to be everywhere but nowhere. As his once ordered world unravels around him, Josef K finds to his despair the futility of getting anywhere near justice and “the law” when his only roads to it are via corrupt lawyers and officials, and a system where in the end a verdict of not guilty and acquittal of the charges against him (or anyone else accused of anything) are unheard of.
The almost prophetic context of Kafka’s story with events soon to unfold in Germany are obvious. Kafka missed those himself by an early death at 40, but friends and relatives lived to see his visionary story become terrible reality...some with horrific consequences. This review, however, is not one of the original book , but of this production by Scottish Opera, and with a small cast consisting of Nicholas Lester (Josef K), Daniel Norman (Guard 1/Block), Paul Carey Jones (Guard 2/Usher/Clerk of Court/Priest), Michael Druiett (Inspector/Uncle) , Emma Kerr (Frau Grubach/Washerwoman), Hazel McBain (Fräulein Bürstner/Leni), Gwion Thomas (Magistrate/Assistant/Lawyer Huld) and Elgan Llyr Thomas (Titorelli/Flogger/Student) as well as the usual high standard of vocals that you would expect from Scottish Opera, they also bring a great deal of black comedy to their respective roles. Nicholas Lester (Josef K) is outstanding throughout, and his part rarely allows him time off stage. It is much due to his portrayal of someone in utter disbelief of what is happening to him and his helplessness to effect any outcome in his favour that makes this almost surreal world everyone inhabits seem solid and believable. There are also times here when you feel that you are being drawn into the “cabaret” world of the period, and much of that feel goes to Daniel Norman and Paul Carey Jones as the guards. Emma Kerr and Hazel McBain give us performances that could be straight out of a Kurt Weill scene at times. Some of this overlay into “Cabaret” is though deliberately there in the music by Philip Glass.
“The Trial” is a performance that you can take on many levels, but whatever level you are working on, this is just a very good example of Scottish Opera being brave enough to commission new works outside of many people’s idea of what Opera is, or should be (this production was with Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera and Theater Magdeburg), and with a very simple set, is a great example of the fact that at its very core, Opera is nothing more than another way of telling a story. Being able to commission new works is always difficult at any time (never mind the current economic times) and this work was also supported by “Scottish Opera’s New Commissions Circle”.
Director Michael McCarthy has done a very good job with this project, and Conductor Derek Clark has interpreted the music of Philip Glass for this production, and this is a production with questions (if not answers) I think for us all. Since its original writing, regimes across the world have sadly fulfilled in full Kafka’s thoughts here, and as you leave the theatre, pick up your next newspaper, or click onto your next internet session, the fact that there are still many “The Trial” regimes across the world should at least concern us in some way, and the fact that some of those regimes are currently supported by our own government for various political, economic, social reasons (or whatever combination of) should concern us even more.
Just a note too, that in keeping true to the original source material, there are a few scenes here of obvious sexual content, so not a performance for anyone planning to bring small children with them…leave the children at home I think, but still get to the performance if you can.
Scottish Opera has other new and innovative productions touring in 2017. For full details visit
Review by Tom King