Innocence by Anmol Vellani
Staging Franz Kafka’s 'The Trial' in today’s India

Innocence_Anmol Vellani © Anmol Vellani

The Goethe-Institut is commemorating the 100th death anniversary of Franz Kafka, the Prague-born German-language writer in a variety of ways. Additionally, the year 2024 marks one hundred years of Kafka’s iconic short story Metamorphosis. Perhaps, therefore, this is an apposite moment to examine the relevance of the world that Kafka created in his short stores and novels, to the 21st century.

Noted Bangalore-based theatre personality, Anmol Vellani has written a stage version of Kafka’s The Trial, titled Innocence, which aims to do precisely that: it takes the form of a conversation between the world of the novel and the world of contemporary India. Although set in India, the play adheres to the broad plot line of the novel and features most of its major characters.

Innocence has been written as a black comedy, an idiom that makes light of subjects that are considered very grave, even morbid. Characters in a black comedy behave as if they are mostly unaware of the seriousness or implausibility of the situation in which they find themselves; rather they treat what they are experiencing, however absurd or outlandish, as normal and perfectly natural. Actors do not put their tongue in their cheek when they deliver their lines; they do not try to underline the absurdity or farce suggested by the setting or the narrative of the play. Black comedy aligns with Kafka’s completely unembellished prose, which describes preposterous and improbable circumstances and occurrences without any trace of irony. This means that the burden of communicating that the protagonist is living through, something akin to a nightmare, will fall on the various elements of design — lights, sound, sets and costume.

The lighting will not be realistic, indicating place and time, but will instead be ‘otherworldly’ — shadowy, eerie, phantasmagoric. The soundscape will be oppressive and ‘unmusical’, and material things will sound like anything but how they should. Human voices, appearing from different directions, will interrupt and comment on the action, like online troll armies. The costumes will evoke the characters and their professions, and yet be eccentric and bizarre. To deepen the sense of oppression that engulfs the lead character, spectators will be seated close to the action, on three sides of the acting area, their shadows sometimes falling on the stage.

As for content, The Trial might read like someone's nightmare but it is astonishingly prescient in anticipating many aspects of the world in which we live today. There is a pressing need — perhaps now more than ever before — for the theatre and other art forms to revisit Kafka's vision of individuals reduced to dread, despair and dead ends by the unfathomable and unaccountable working of state and legal systems.

Innocence is scheduled to premiere in Bangalore in May 2024.

The project is supported by the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan.