When actor Karl Drinkwater appears as Josef K in Frank Kafka's The Trial it will be a test for the young actor in more ways than one. Drinkwater, 32, has not been on stage for three years, and stepped into the demanding role after actor Gareth Reeves pulled out to work in Australian television.
He won't just be on the stage, either. The production utilises a labyrinth of conference rooms and exits beneath Auckland's Aotea Centre to create a fitting atmosphere for the disorientation, secretiveness and power struggles in Kafka's drama. The audience will follow the action to four different locations.
Adapted by playwright Dean Parker (Came A Hot Friday, The Hollow Men), this contemporary version of the novel sticks closely to Kafka's original plot. Bank clerk Josef K awakes on the morning of his 30th birthday to find he is being arrested, although he doesn't know what crime he has committed.
K must contend with a mysterious justice system staffed by corrupt magistrates and where sexual scandal is rife. Even K's friends doubt his innocence - or worse, tell him he is a lost cause. He can trust no one.
The Trial stars Liesha Ward-Knox, Jo Smith and Cameron Rhodes as well as musicians Jeff Henderson, Isaac Smith, Warwick Donald and Gerard Crewdson from the Wellington-based cult musical outfit Fertility Festival.
Director Stephen Bain, of Winning Productions, says when he had to re-cast the role of Josef K, he thought of Drinkwater, having watched him at various stages of his career.
The two appeared together five years ago in the play The Irish Annals of Aotearoa and three years ago Bain designed the Centrepoint Theatre production of Guantanamo in which Drinkwater starred.
"Every director needs to keep a shortlist of characters in his head for situations like this," Bain says.
"And Karl was top of the list.
"In a sense, when I heard Karl's story of what he had been doing for the last few years it confirmed my decision he was the right person for the role because it exemplified his openness to the world. That is a quality I think he shares with Josef K who is an everyman, a character we can all relate to."
Three years ago, Drinkwater's acting career looked to be proceeding nicely. With minor television and film roles behind him, he was landing some meaty theatre roles, too.
But Drinkwater decided the uncertainty of acting was not for him. He joined a relative's firm working as a used car salesman and life ticked along happily with a more regular pay packet for the next few years.
Around about six weeks ago, that job disappeared - a victim of the global financial crisis - and Drinkwater started thinking about what to do next when Bain called.
"I told Stephen if he felt I was up to the job, then I would certainly read the script.
"I admit I didn't understand it at first but I am beginning to understand the character and get a grasp on things. I've worked with Stephen before so that helps and it's an amazing cast to be part of."
Bain, who started working on the play two years ago, acknowledges The Trial is open to differing interpretations but believes it is a play about persecution: "The essential idea of someone being arrested and not knowing why is, for me, very powerful.
"The language is more modern and the story is knitted to fit with the surveillance-style camera culture that we live in but it remains a story about the powers of modern bureaucracy."
What: The Trial
Where and when: Lower NZI Conference Centre, Aotea Centre, Nov 13-29; bookings (09) 357 3355 or www.the-edge.co.nz