As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature. So begins Franz Kafka’s famous novella, the 100th anniversary of which the literary world will mark next year.
You can get a head start on the centenary celebrations with Metamorphosis, a collaboration between the Vesturport Theater of Reykjavik and Lyric Hammersmith of London that retells Kafka’s story through a combination of gymnastics and histrionics. The production has been touring about artsy institutions from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo since 2006 – and now finds an unlikely but not unhappy spot in Mirvish Productions’ 50th anniversary season.
As the curtain rises, Gregory Samsa (an athletic Bjorn Thors) is found in bed, but seen only as an arachnid-like shadow underneath bedsheets on the second floor of a jungle-gym set designed by Borkur Jonsson. When we do eventually see Gregory in the flesh, however, he looks like any man – it’s only in his movements that his transformation is apparent.
In contrast to the rest of the set, Gregor’s bedroom is seen from above, as if we are a ceiling fan looking down on his bed. As he becomes more and more comfortable with his new body, Gregor swings from a lamp that sticks out towards us, bounds from wall to wall thanks to conveniently located cracks that function as footholds and handholds, or even bounces off of them thanks to concealed trampolines.
We’re in Robert Lepage territory here where the staging is as striking as the story – and one thinks of the tumbling box full of trapdoors that was the real star of his recent revival of Needles and Opium.
Downstairs, Gregor’s family is frightened and fretting. Father Herman (Tom Mannion) is angry that his son is unable to work and has abandoned the duty of supporting the family; mother Lucy (Edda Arnljotsdottir) is worried about what the neighbours will think; while sister Greta (Unnur Osp Stefansdottir) is primarily concerned about her brother’s condition.
As Gregor literally climbs the walls, his parents and sister also move about with heightened physicality. They drink tea, read newspapers and answer doors with exaggerated purpose, in imitation of the middle class to which they desperately are clinging.
As this adaptation makes clear, it is Gregor’s family members who are really undergoing the metamorphosis of the title. Gregor stays essentially the same in personality: kind and gentle, he is mostly concerned that Greta has had to put aside her dream of studying violin at the Conservatory in order to work as a shopgirl since his transformation.
Meanwhile, with his ability to pay the bills gone, Gregor is becomes less and less human in Greta’s eyes – and when he refuses to stay quiet when a prospective boarder (Vikingur Kristjansson) comes by, matters come to a head.
There certainly is ongoing relevance here; we still live in a society that often assigns primary value to human beings based on their economic contributions. But adapter-directors David Farr and Gísli Orn Gardarsson also transform Kafka’s tale into a parable about the rise of fascism. “Work will set us free,” the newly employed Herman says at one point – in an altogether too glib reference to the slogan that was above the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Must every story set in a German-speaking place inevitably lead here?
In addition to Iceland and England, Australia has a hand in the Metamorphosis creative team, too: Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds/Grinderman bandmate Warren Ellis wrote the recorded music, which consists of a lot of jittery violins and a single song at the end.
There’s not enough of Cave in the show for fans to necessarily flock to it – and the final image, visually surprising, might have had more emotional impact with live singing from the cast rather than a voice-over cameo from its well-known composer. With the appealing Icelandic eccentricity and accents of the cast, however, I would certainly recommend this work to any admirers of the aesthetic of Bjork.
Follow me on Twitter: