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Oxford German Play ‘Der Process’, 29 May 2018, Burton Taylor Studio

A poster for Oxford German play, Burton Taylor Studio.

A very unique thing about Oxford is the strength and variety of its Modern Languages studies. Classics and Oriental Studies follow suit, and with the corresponding experience in drama to be discovered in many students of the University, annual plays in various languages have become a norm rather than an exception on Oxford drama scene. There have been annual French, German, Italian and Spanish plays, and also an Ancient Greek production (always a huge success) once in three years. This end of Trinity Term 2018 saw Burton Taylor studio, the usual atmospheric venue for student productions, hosting a dramatic adaptation of Kafka’s ‘Der Process’.

Rehearsals pictures for 'Der Process', credits: Simon Hunt

The very fact that this famous novel was presented to audiences in its original version sounded too intriguing to miss, and the 50-seat studio was sold out before the showings of 6th week started. For those who did not have tickets a chance to queue for returns was always available, and usually some were lucky – Oxford Drama welcomes everyone, especially the real enthusiasts. I was one of them and happily found myself in the front row on the evening of Tuesday, the show’s opening night. I never regretted coming to see it for many reasons that I will try to put down here by presenting some details of the show that stayed in my memory.

Fistly, it was a great opportunity to listen to Kafka’s sentences in original, and that is not such a small thing, if you ask me. The two hours practice of German, especially from such an exquisite literary source and in such good rendering as all actors involved seemed to demonstrate, should not be missed. German words and sentences still rang in my ears on my way home, with recollections of Munich and Berlin theatre trips attaching themselves to these inner echos. ‘Der Process’ team, and that is the second wonderful thing about the show, helps you get immersed in a German spirit, more precisely that of the era of Expressionism in theatre, film and art, and also of Brechtian intellectual involvement of the audiences in important political messages of the time. This is quite unique for a student production to be able to create a certain atmosphere, especially such a specific one so effectively.

Leo Maedje in rehearsal. Credits: Simon Hunt

The designer Oleksii Melnik and costume designer Sarah Williams choose very minimalist, but very specific and focused approach to actor’s costumes and to pieces of furniture present in the room. Costumes of the 1900s and 1910s, dresses of the same period, a telephone, a typing machine, some scattered papers of the court chambers – everything was chosen very deliberately, no additional paraphernalia or excessiveness of objects was to be seen. Actors’ faces were painted white in a Brechtian, expressionist style. Brown lines piercing their painted masks like shadows made students look like characters from ‘The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari’.

The uniquely clever choice of music (probably the director Justin Fehr’s elaborate decision, as it was not indicated on the programme) complemented the picture. It was uniquely sophisticated not only for a student production, but in fact for any piece of modern theatre. I knew from the start that the piercingly sorrowful and dark music extracts that accompanied important moments of the production were something I could hear in modern classical concert halls. These were Concerto Grosso No.1 by Schnittke, Cello Concerto by Siegfried Palm, Musica Ricercata 2 and Lux Aeterna by Györgi Ligeti, Pithoprakta by Iannis Xenakis, String Quartet No.2 by Schönberg. Justin Fehr made an exquisite choice with these pieces, and they, being mainly from the second half of the 20th century, created a feeling of poignant modernity and 21st century neurotism that positioned itself on top of the 1920s design and created a unique feel of the production being historical and contemporary at the same time.

Louis Morris in rehearsal. Credits: Simon Hunt

Lighting from Simon Hunt was also deliberately thought through, as the episodes existed like snippets of light in complete darkness, with faces of actors becoming even more expressionistic with such exposure. Sometimes the lights became green or red, deliberately exaggerating the surreality of specific episodes - for instance, a walk of Josef K. in court, being surrounded by other defendants, or his witnessing of a cruel (but also almost clownish) beating behind his cupboard. This served a very important purpose in this production, as it snatched certain episodes from the reality of everyday existence of the main character, partly dislocating them to the insides of his mind and partly adding up to a general built-up of the abnormality of the whole world surrounding the protagonist.

One possible flaw of this wonderful production, though, was some unclearness of its main message. Yes, Kafka can be psychologically complicated and unclear, but a theatre director’s task, presumably, is to choose one of the strands of the novel, take a specific take on it and present it with clarity of intention. It was not exactly so in this production. One the one hand, the plot developed through clearly defined episodes (cleverly separated with lighting and fadings) from an initial arrest of Josef K. to a meeting with the neighbour (Frau Bürstner) to the appearance at the first court hearing and meeting with Frau des Gerichtsdieners (a court clark’s wife). Then it proceeded to a visit to the court and introduction to an old lawyer and then his rejection of the laywer (while being infatuated with Leni, his servant) and a talk with another client Block. Then the story proceeded to a meeting with the court painter Titorelli and the Kaplan who told Josef a famous story of a man near closed doors and the guard who refused to let him in. Justin Fehr followed Kafka’s novel faithfully and each episode’s atmosphere was created with great skill and inventiveness characteristic for this production, but at some point one began to wonder where all these rencontres were leading and what the director’s message could be.

Odysseas Myresiotis Alivertis in rehearsal. Credits: Simon Hunt

I could only guess that Fehr was trying to build variations on a theme ‘everything you see is not real’ or Calderon’s ‘Life is a Dream’, with the idea of events constructing themselves as theatre scenes in Josef’s head becoming one of the recurring ideas of this show. The ending here was as unclear as fitting into this pattern of a dream, as it was not sure whether the murder happens for real or just inside Josef’s head, through his own will or without it. Apart from it, the philosophical and socio-political themes of Kafka’s novel became slightly fuzzy, as the ideas were not developed and left behind with the episodes swiftly passing by. Among my guesses about what fascinated the director in the text was the presence of women in Josef K’s life (meetings with them were directed very erotically and engagingly) and his attempt to change the world and others that proved futile. Neither of these three possible focuses built up together into one strong narrative, so as a viewer I was left with patchy ideas about all of them and without a clear impression of the show's message. But one never forgot its atmosphere and its episodes stood out in one’s memory very clearly afterwards, which was great.

The actors were really good and skillful, although not all of them acted up to the level of the director’s and the team’s work. Not all of them were German speakers, and, honestly, you could never tell whose level of German was acquired and whose was natural – everyone was speaking perfect in this show. This high level of German articulation and elaborate phrasing of Kafka’s sentences certainly helped as sometimes subtitles were partly covered by actors’ bodies which is not surprising for a small studio space. A very clever distribution made each member of the company, apart from the protagonist, take up several roles, which created an atmosphere of the mass of different characters (whose individualities are not important) bustling around and almost procreating around the main character.

Ruth Eichinger in rehearsal. Credits: Simon Hunt

Ruth Eichinger played almost all important women in Josef K’s life (including Leni) and her multiple guises made her that very ‘ewig weibliche’ that presented itself to the hero in its different versions. Henrique Laitenberger was also excellent as a bespectacled, fragile and neurotic character: as Gerichtsdiener who dreams of beating up his rival (a very powerful scene from the actor) and powerless Block who is faithful to his lawyer of five years (bending on his knees before him) in a similar way that Gerichtsdiener keeps forgiving his wife. Also really wonderful was Leo Maedje as first as the person who interrogated Josef K. in his apartment (Aufseher) and then as old Advocat in a wheel-chair (with the actor excellently conveying the mannerisms of both figures and their relaxed and ironic habit of power). Louis Morris shined as Titorelli the court painter, while Monica Schroeder was exceptionally powerful and subdued as a Kaplan telling one of the pivotal stories of the novel.

Odysseas Myresiotis Alivertis and Henrique Laitenberger. Credits: Simon Hunt

Last, but not least, it was an actor with the name that sounded magical – Odysseas Myresiotis Alivertis – playing Josef K. that was the biggest discovery of the night. He must have been in some drama school – otherwise I can’t explain the wealth and freshness of emotions, as well as earnestness and cleverness that this actor brought to his character. Although he might have repeated some elements of his take on the role towards the end, his technique and unique physical presence was something extraordinary and difficult to put into words. His moments of interactions with female characters were very convincing and revealed his character’s fragility, while he also was flexible in adapting the reactions of Josef K. to other people he met within the story. Alivertis also mastered Brechtian interactions with the audience through engaging with his viewers both within the show and beyond it. The actor, by the sheer strength of his presence in the show, created an arch of a protagonist’s story that made us forget about the unfinished strands of directorial decisions within this production and served as a unifying centre of the whole evening. One could only congratulate actors and the team on this incredible achivement that proves that student drama in Oxford could become a field for clever and daring explorations of classical literary material and was able to connect us to it in a fresh and new way that professional theatre sometimes only aspires to.

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