Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. Adapted for the stage (2006) and Directed by David Farr & Gisli Orn Gardarsson (2008).Reviewed by Leoba.
Music by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Designer Borkur Jonsson
Sound by Nick Manning
Costume Designer Brenda Murphy
Producers Rakel Gardarsdottir and Kate McGrath
Before I start this review, a caveat: I have not read the Franz Kafka novella on which this play is based, so I am unable to provide any kind of comparison between the two. Those readers familiar with the story will no doubt find differences between what they have read and what is described here. Such differences are only to be expected when a story is translated from one format to another. What I offer here is a review of the play Metamorphosis, based on Kafka's story and adapted and directed by David Farr of the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London, and Gisli Õrn Gardasson of the Vesturport Theatre, Reykjavik. Premiered in 2006, the show ran at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in September-October 2008. I attended the matinee showing on Saturday October 4 at 2:30 pm. I was very pleased by the show and disturbed by the questions it left with me—questions I don't know that I can answer.
Gregor Samsa lives with his younger sister, Greta, and their parents in a small apartment. Following the collapse of his father's business five years previous, Gregor has worked long hours as a traveling salesmen to support the family. This leaves him drained, but he is happy to work so his parents won't have to (his mother suffers from ill health), and he saves up what extra money he can—secretly—so that Greta might be able to attend the conservatory to study the violin in the future.
One morning, the family awakens to discover Gregor's shoes beside the door—he has not left for work. They discover, to their horror, that Gregor as they know him is gone from his bed, and in his place is a giant insect-like creature (Ungeziefer verwandelt in the original German). They are afraid and disgusted. Over the course of the play we see each family member dealing with the situation (and with Gregor himself) in his or her own way: Mr. Samsa's denial, Mrs. Samsa's equal parts maternal devotion and horror, and Greta's naïve belief that if she just keeps things going everything will be fine—an attitude that gradually gives way to resentment and eventually to outright hatred.
Mr. Samsa and Greta take jobs outside the home, and Mrs. Samsa brings in sewing. Once the breadwinner, Gregor becomes unnecessary, remaining hidden from the outside. He is ignored and almost forgotten until the family attempts to take in a lodger. This scene builds to an exciting and very funny climax in which the family feels forced—whether they are or not—to make some decisions that should be more difficult than they are. For the Samsas, the play ends on a positive note, relief tinged with joy, that I found rather sickening.
This show was fabulous both for the story, and for its overall quality. The acting was quite good throughout. As Mrs. Samsa, Kelly Hunter was perhaps a bit overwrought but I expect that was as much the character herself as the actor. As Mr. Samsa, Ingvar E Sigurdsson was believable as a man clinging to what pride he can find as a former business-owner now having to work for someone else. As Greta, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir was absolutely heartbreaking as a loving (and much loved) sister and it was an uneasy pleasure to watch her change over the course of the play. In what was essentially a walk-on part as Herr Fischer (the lodger), Jonathan McGuiness played a small role but made a huge impact, providing much needed—and uncomfortable—comic relief. Finally, I cannot say enough about Gisli Õrn Gardasson as Gregor (Gardarsson also co-adapted and directed the show, along with David Farr). Ironic perhaps, but he brought such humanity to the role. It was a pleasure to watch him try to figure himself out, come to terms with what he'd become and his eventual acceptance of it, even while he attempts to maintain some kind of relationship with his ever more distant family. What amazed me the most is that he was able to maintain this human connection with the audience even as the character he was playing was very obviously not human, and that the physicality required for carrying that off (on which more later) did not interfere with the emotion of his performance.
Coming into the play, the main question I had was a fairly practical one—how to present Gregor? Well, the creative group responsible for this show has come up with a marvelous approach to illustrating Gregor's otherness. The set itself is the actor's costume. It's designed in two levels: the lower level, consisting of the main room of the house where the Samsa family spends its time, and the second level, consisting of Gregor's room and a small hallway (connected to the room below via a small staircase stage right). Gregor's room has been flipped 90 degrees away from the audience, so that the floor is on the back wall, his bed directly in the middle of the wall, facing the audience. The first glimpse we get of Gregor is his head, pushed through the sheets of his bed, window glowing above (his wall, our ceiling). His bed, chair, lamp, potted plant, and later his food dishes, all are attached to the wall, and Gregor moves around through a series of handholds—creeping, crawling, at times hanging off the furniture or swinging on the drapery. The "floor" of the room (the wall parallel to the window) contains a trampoline, on which Gregor performs jumps and flips when he is feeling particularly rambunctious.
Gregor himself appears normal to the audience. He does not wear a costume; instead he is dressed for work in a white shirt and trousers (which become more and more tattered as the show progresses). His speech is intelligible to the audience, although obviously unintelligible and even painful for his family. They cover their ears and flinch when he attempts to communicate, and during one especially heated tantrum Greta does an impression of what she hears when he speaks: a series of loud, piercing squeals resembling something like a car alarm combined with an air horn. Not a pleasant sound, and not at all human.
The appearance of Gregor as fully human was the single most interesting aspect of the show, making him into an exceptionally sympathetic character. We in the audience are able to share with him as he discovers his transformation and seeks understanding and love from the family, and finally realizes that they can give him neither. Gardarsson is expressive; he has large eyes and a face that effortlessly shows emotion, and his physicality is exceptional. As he moves, climbs, crawls and dances around the set, you can sense his confusion, fright, and occasional moments of happiness. His final moments are especially moving.
I found many different questions rolling around in my head in the hours and days following the show. Some of these were the questions I imagine are the ones I was supposed to have: What would you do if you woke up one morning to discover you are not who you once were? Not just someone else, but something else—something your family cannot understand or communicate with. What could you do? What could your family do? What would your life become?
However, even as I watched the show I found myself grappling with these same questions but from a slightly different point of view. You see, I have an older brother. Growing up, his room was in the attic of the family home (in fact, he still lives with my parents, and his room is still in the attic). I saw a lot of my brother in Gregor, and I fear that I also saw myself in Greta. The relationship between siblings is not one that I think about very often but it can be both intense and maddening. I find my brother to be wonderful and incredibly annoying in roughly equal amounts, and I like to think that I would do anything for him, but watching "Metamorphosis" really made me question the limits of my devotion. And it was an uncomfortable questioning.
Indeed: what would I do if my brother turned into a creature that I could not communicate with nor understand according to any social or cultural cues? It's unlikely that he would wake up one morning as a giant insect, but he could be rendered comatose or brain-damaged in an accident, or he could develop debilitating drug abuse problems, or mental illness. Any of these could make my brother into someone else: someone I might not recognize, someone I might not want to recognize or even to know. Would I still love him? Would I forget my brother, would I grow to hate him? What would be my sisterly duty? I felt so much sympathy for Greta as she dealt with these questions and came to her own conclusions. I like to think that I would have done a better job than she (and certainly better than Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, who did not hold onto Gregor for nearly as long, or as strongly, as did Greta), but how am I to know? I only hope I never have to be tested as the Samsas were tested.
I've visited the websites for the Vesturport Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith and neither have future show dates listed, but if you do discover a local presentation of this show, don't miss it.
Dublin Theatre Festival