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Pity the Poles! Intense suicidal sadness in stage adaptation of Kafka's 'Trial'.

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You'd better be a Pole. That, it emerged during the Dutch premiere of 'Process' at the Holland Festival, no fun. This performance, an adaptation of Franz Kafka's famous novel of the same name, conveys that feeling very poignantly. Five hours long, interrupted only by two half-hour intermissions, during which a mackerel sandwich can be eaten. Or a bowl of mixed nuts.

Observant readers will note that Kafka's Trial is not set in Poland, but in the Czech capital Prague, in which case you are partly right. Kafka lived and died in Prague, but his book could be set anywhere. The story about a bank employee who one evil day ends up in a court case without ever finding out why and what the charges are, is set in an unspecified dingy town full of tenement halls and dingy backstreets.

Grey grouse

I am grateful to Polish director Krystian Lupa for his work, because the stage setting alone is perfect. Here, not the what I consider to be totally misplaced megalomania that the well-known film adaptation by Orson Welles but intensely drab dinginess, wafer-thin walls and the depiction of a shadowy legal world that exists alongside ordinary life, behind that one dilapidated door in that alley you usually don't even pass. The music: repeated ad nauseam (literally, that is) pieces by Piazolla (I've seen that face before), Bach (Matthaeus), Mozart (Requiem) and something that reminded me of the first bars of Bowie's Blackstar. Precisely in those repetitions was the hypnosis you need to sit for five hours on those terrible emergency grandstand seats.

In an interview, Lupa, who taught several great Polish theatre-makers, explained that he always wanted to stay away from Kafka's book because it was too pessimistic for him. I can relate to that since I attended his final adaptation for five hours at the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw. Rarely have I indulged in so much sadness for so long. Because really nothing and no one at all is virtuous. Everyone on stage betrays the other where they stand, people abandon each other, seek each other out of self-interest. Just like real life, probably, though I like having the illusion that people are better off for each other.

Alize Zandwijk

If not, apparently, in Poland. The performance is full of references to today's Poland, where Kafka reigns again and anti-Semitism is rampant as if a Holocaust never happened. The characters in this universe of sadness are incapable of any joy, and neither are the actors. You can see this because there is 'transparent' playing, especially halfway through, when the actors speak directly about their current predicament. The worldview in this performance is of a suicidal sadness that I only recognise a little from the work of Alize Zandwijk, but then at least in those plays someone always emerged halfway through with a colander on his head to break the tension.

Not a moment of relief here. Or it must be the thoroughly cynical voice-over, which sounds hauntingly over and behind the protagonist's lyrics: the director, the alter ego? Or Kafka's soul? The government? It doesn't feel nice, especially when we in the audience are actually also made more and more intense witnesses, and even jurors, in this gruesome process.


As it nears the end, the dialogues go another notch softer and slower. This is a tough test of endurance, especially since, as a non-pole in the audience, you have to switch between the overhead and side titles (why does nobody do anything about that?!) and the players all the time. Then, when the end is there, you don't really see relief or relief in the players either. After all, when they return to Poland after this tour, the same sadness awaits them.

Feel sorry for the Poles.

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Process can still be witnessed until 23 June. Information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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