Metamorphosis | Lyric Hammersmith / Vesturport

Metamorphosis | Lyric Hammersmith / VesturportLeft - Gísli Örn Gardarsson. Cover - Gísli Örn Gardarsson and Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir. Images © Eddi

Franz Kafka’s novella about a man who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect is less concerned with the horror of the predicament itself than with the chasm that opens up between the man and the people around him as a result of it. In this stage adaptation, a collaboration between the UK’s Lyric Hammersmith and Icelandic theatre company Vesturport, Gregor Samsa’s isolation is immediate and irrevocable, strikingly emphasised by Börkur Jónsson’s production design and by the confident use of physical theatre techniques. 

The stage is split vertically into two levels of the apartment where Gregor lives with his parents and sister (this works particularly well behind the high proscenium arch of Hobart’s Theatre Royal). Gregor’s room and an upstairs hallway are the top storey, the family living room is the bottom storey. Gregor, having gone from fair-haired boy to black sheep (well, black beetle) overnight, is encouraged to keep to his room, and so the upper half of the stage becomes his world.

The lower half, where life continues on in its ordinary middle class way, is the domain of his father, his mother and sister, Grete. When Gregor eventually does venture downstairs, encouraged by the well-meaning Grete, he soon regrets it and scuttles back up to where he will be ‘safe’. The separation between these two levels, between these two pieces of the Samsa family, is absolute. 

Nothing makes this more evident in this production than the fact that in Gregor’s room everything is the wrong way up. Gregor’s bed is on the floor, naturally, but to us it’s a vertical plane. Gregor defies gravity when he’s merely sleeping, he crawls along the walls with ease, hanging from the furniture, perching precariously. When Grete brings her brother his meals she places them on the floor but to us they seem to be on the wall. Gregor’s perspective, we see, has changed so completely that now even ‘up’ and ‘down’ have different meanings.

Watching this production is a curious experience, a bit like watching a film edited with a split screen: you don’t always know where to look. Indeed, you don’t always know who the story is about... Gregor Samsa, hardworking-salesman-turned-freak? Yes, but he’s just a giant insect (‘creature’ according to some translations), he doesn’t really change after the initial catastrophe. He’s still faithful, steadfast Gregor, whatever his form. It’s the reactions of the other three Samsas that are so illuminating. When Gregor tries to speak, tries to explain his thoughts or ask for help, his family hears only revolting, meaningless noise. Gregor has become an alien species, in short, and the Samsa family (presumably typical of their society, Germany at the time of the First World War) are not great embracers of diversity.

His father, played with charismatic bluster by Ingvar E Sigurdsson, forgets almost immediately that Gregor ever was human and will have little to do with him. His mother, a strong woman feigning neurosis as played by Edda Arnljótsdóttir, cares about Gregor still, but is so wrapped up in her own feelings, gasping with asthma whenever she approaches an unpleasant task, that she can do little to help. Grete’s behaviour is the most fascinating of the three. At first she is completely on Gregor’s side, throwing herself into the care and protection of him with vigour. But gradually we see that this is a sort of pose, an immature whim. When other things arise to take her interest – her job in a department store, a new lodger with a fine suit and a high-handed manner (Johnathan McGuinness) – she begins to neglect her brother, as a spoiled child might forget the puppy she got for Christmas. Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir powerfully communicates the contradictions within Grete; an ordinary girl, perhaps, capable of ruthlessness.

So we have Gregor up in his room (his cage, you might say), mucking about as a bored cockroach would: scratching, climbing and jumping as the mood takes him. This is where Gísli Örn Gardarsson’s acrobatic skills come to the fore, the room being subtly provided with climbing handholds to enable his performance. The illusion is so good, so complete, that we quickly forget that Gardarsson is doing anything at all unusual or dangerous. He’s not an actor hanging from the wall with one hand while performing a moving soliloquy – he’s just an insect-man hiding behind a pot plant, complaining:  big deal. We are brought so neatly into Gregor’s reality that his situation becomes almost commonplace. It’s his family’s reactions – their revulsion, their fear, their denial – that seems odd and over the top.

This is surely what Kafka intended. Gregor Samsa has been transformed into a monster, and yet he still thinks as a man does. He is still himself, full of feeling and fragility. The audience, the reader, is let into this secret – this is what gives the story such power to move us – but the characters in the play do not grasp it at all. Is Metamorphosis then a study in mass psychology, of how seemingly ‘normal’ people are capable of terrible things? What enables cruelty? Merely a change in perspective, it would seem.

The more the story unfolds the more we wonder about the family’s previous dynamic. Certainly, the Samsas were once fond of Gregor, and yet what was their love about? If his metamorphosis means that their love vanishes, was it love, or merely a sort of comfortable dependency? Is Gregor’s trial supposed to teach him this, to show him the true face of things? “In vino veritas!” toasts the father cheerfully at one point, the smile freezing on his lips moments later as insect-boy crashes the party (a poignant scene, largely invented by this production). So should we look at Metamorphosis then as a story about facing up to the way the world really is?

Or could it be that Gregor always was a creature, a thing apart? Like much of Kafka’s work, The Metamorphosis is strongly autobiographical. Looked at it thus, perhaps this is a story about Kafka’s own fears, of how the people around him would behave if they really knew him, saw his essential unworthiness? How tenuous then is Gregor/Kafka’s place in the world, and how frightening to believe that approval may be so suddenly and inexplicably lost, never to be regained. What is a person worth once they’ve slipped out of the pattern, once they’ve lost their place in the scheme of things? Less than nothing, it would seem. So perhaps the point is that human beings should never be reduced to this, to their cog-function, their role. A person is a person. Even when he’s a bug.

Metamorphosis is an exciting production, in tune with the source material and yet boldly inventive. It's clearly not intended to be a definitive version of the story but to offer a new angle. The focus is less on words and more on action, and yet the sense of Gregor’s predicament as an urban nightmare, a story that is placed in a very specific time and locale, is not lost. Mundane details such as food, furniture, Grete’s violin and the house itself are highlighted. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provides a suitably melancholic backdrop; although the use of one song with lyrics is unnecessary and breaks the mood. 

The plot is cleverly condensed - for example the three lodgers of the original story are encapsulated here by one particularly obnoxious lodger – and the grotesquery of the family’s behaviour accentuated. Most strikingly, Gregor’s pathos is heightened, not least due to Gísli Örn Gardarsson's fine performance. In this version of the story Gregor  speaks little but suffers greatly. He never feels anger, he only waits patiently and allows himself to be sacrificed.

Ten Days on the Island presents a Lyric Hammersmith and Vesturport Theatre production
Adapted & Directed by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson

Theatre Royal, 29 Campbell Street
26 March at 7.30pm - Preview
27 March at 7.30pm
28 March –1 April at 8pm
Duration: 1hr 25mins (No interval)
Tickets: Premium $65, A Reserve $55, B Reserve $44, Concession $38
Gallery/C Reserve $28, Concession $23

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