Friday, October 31, 2008

Farr/Gardarsson, Metamorphosis (2006)

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.

Vesturport Theatre
Lyric Hammersmith
Dublin Theatre Festival

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hamilton, Reality Dysfunction (1997)

Peter F Hamilton, The Reality Dysfunction. Pan Books, 1997. Pp. 1225. ISBN 0330340328. £8.99.

Reviewed by Bruce Stenning

I bought this book over a decade ago, and when I started to read it I got less than ten pages in before deciding not to carry on. I cannot remember quite what put me off, but something did. It sat unread on my bookshelf all these years, until eventually I decided to give it another chance.

At over 1200 printed pages, this is space opera at its most rambling: It is quite a chunk of text to read. The story meanders into the horror genre, at times, and then back out again. It tentatively touches on religion, politics, and the supernatural, but only in a very superficial way.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Adams (ed.), Wastelands (2008)

John Joseph Adams (ed.), Wastelands: Stories of the apocalypse. Night Shade Books, 2008. Pp. 333. ISBN 9781597801058. $15.95.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This volume, by prolific anthology editor Adams, collects 22 short stories on the rather vague theme of the end of the world (or of civilization, if there's any difference). Fall-of-civilization stories make great political parables, but there is much more post-apocalyptic fiction being published than there is good post-apocalyptic fiction, so a selection vetted by a respectable and talented editor ought to be a great idea. The lack of coherence or consistency in this volume make it a bit of a missed opportunity therefore (although there is some great stuff in here).

In a rather brief introduction that doesn't quite run to two pages, Adams talks a little about the history and some themes of post-apocalyptic stories, both in science fiction and in mainstream literature (in which it has been more prevalent than most speculative topics). Post-apocalyptic fiction has been largely a Cold War phenomenon--not surprisingly, since this coincided with the first time modern humanity was faced with both the possibility of total annihilation at its own hand, and political leaders who were patently ready to wield that hand. But disaster fiction is also fantasy-fulfillment; its protagonists are (as Adams quotes John Varley) "wandering, scrounging, defending", but above all surviving.

On the one hand, the typical post-apocalyptic story is a dystopia, a political parable of the worst of our world. Civilization has fallen, and with it all the trappings of our world: the protection of the weak, the rule of law, recourse to justice without spiraling taleonic revenge. The post-apocalyptic world is lawless and violent; people steal and rape with impunity. The worst of our bestial human natures takes over. There is suffering, famine, disease, poverty; no technology or cooperation to help overcome these ills that we have not had to deal with (at least in the West) for the last several generations. It is the worst of worlds.

But it can also be the best of worlds, and some post-apocalyptic stories contain elements of the political utopia (that "avenge themselves on this life with the phantasmagoria of another, a better life"). It is the opportunity to start over, to build a new civilization from the stones upward, to create a life and a culture learning from and avoiding the mistakes of the past. The world without cities, and banks, and politicians, and corruption, and bureaucracy. In other words, it's a libertarian's wet dream. (But idyllic cooperation can also be an anarchist parable; it all depends on your opinions about human nature.)

The stories in this volume touch on all of these issues, but also on banal themes such as the nature of heroism; of good and evil; of resilience and fortitude shown in the face of adversity; the journey to self-fulfillment that comes from the hero's suffering; the quest for lost wisdom; for the glory of the (nostalgic) past.

And so finally onto the stories. Adams introduces each offering with a half page of biography and interpretation (just occasionally bordering on the spoiler). The first story, 'The End of the Whole Mess', is billed as "a high-profile contributor ... uncommonly good ... [and] set[s] the tone for the rest of the book". In fact only the first of these three claims is true: this is in fact a rather unexciting and unoriginal story by a very famous but typically uneven novelist who is usually much more entertaining than this. I'm sure the theme of the mad genius who tragically destroys civilization with an engineered disease (done so much better by Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake) was not dazzling and new even in 1988 when this piece was first published. Thankfully this does not set the tone for the rest of the book, since many of the following stories are much better (and very few are much worse).

For this reader there were three stand-out stories in this anthology that warrant highlighting.

'Bread and Bombs' is probably the most powerful piece in the volume, a daring and controversial blend of terrorism, atrocity, prejudice, and the terrible cost of the so-called "innocence" of childhood. While not exactly a twist-in-the-tale story as such, the focus of the plot does change and so is richer on second and subsequent readings. Narrated in retrospect by one of the characters who was a child at the time of the events described, the characterizations and foreshadowings are given in childish terms, echoing both the naïvety and the cruelty of the young. When a foreign family move into a narrow-minded, nervous, and fragile community, the uncomfortable friendship between the exotic and oddly-behaved daughters and the local children brings out the best and the worst in the adults of the town. The tragedy is foreshadowed from the opening words, but is nonetheless horrific when it occurs for all that. This is a clever and deeply moving story, the kind that gets you thinking without preaching to you, and—although perhaps not strictly post-apocalyptic in the normal sense—is everything that great science fiction should be.

'Judgment Passed' is the most literally post-apocalyptic piece in the collection; a story with a religious theme but an ostensibly rationalist viewpoint. Eight astronauts return to Earth from an inter-stellar journey to find that the Biblical apocalypse has occurred and all humans on the planet have disappeared, apparently taken away by God. The protagonists find their faith (or their agnosticism, respectively) sorely tested by these events, but nothing they can do or say (or believe) seems capable of changing anything—least of all the fact that they have been left behind. This story does excellent work in analyzing the nature of belief, the limits of rationalism, and the dangers of fundamentalist faith. I was a little uncomfortable with the implication that a "noble lie" (an untruth designed to make the believer behave better) is any more acceptable in the cause of rationalism than it is in the cause of a religious faith. Certainly a story to provoke debates and soul-searching, which can only be a good thing.

'Inertia' is another piece that is not typical post-apocalyptic fare, but set in what is effectively a quarantine containment camp in which a community has grown up over generations of detention. Again, this piece is not so much high-octane science fiction as it is very thought-provoking parable, with its evocation of idyllic politics, conflict-free self-organization, and the morality of deliberately interfering with the mental (and ethical) health of humanity. It is the same incurable, disfiguring disease that has the internees locked away by a fearful and ever more barbaric general population, that allows them to live unburdened by the desperate, ambitious, and competitive instincts that are in danger of bringing down civilization as we know it in a violent cataclysm. Narrated by an old, arthritic woman, the protagonists are her innocent, idealistic granddaughter; her bitter, self-obsessed daughter; and the charming and mysterious doctor from outside who claims to have a cure for the world's ills. Another story that will get you arguing with its clever, intense, controversial, but complex politics.

There are several other good and notable stories in this volume. 'The People of Sand and Slag' is not typically post-apocalyptic so much as post-human, but the protagonists are humans living in a world so blasted and polluted that we would find it uninhabitable. Culturally as well as physically adapted, the heroes find a dog living in the slag and poison of a toxic waste site, and the companionship of this fragile and obsolete animal cause them to consider in a new light their humanity, their technology, and their intelligence. 'Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels' is another post-human story set in a devastated world centuries-abandoned by humanity, that shows how a highly specialized, rapidly adapted race would seem less than human to returning exiles exploring with a view to re-colonizing the recovering planet. Sensitive and inventive, the weirdness in this story is so extreme as to read like fantasy until the first "normal" humans appear.

A more traditional story is 'Artie's Angels', about a group of bicycle couriers carving a niche for themselves and protection for their young gang in a desperate, lawless ghetto of a dome-city on a doomed Earth. Appealing to Arthurian legend, this is nevertheless an optimistic story, showing how with resourcefulness and cooperation we can make a better world for ourselves however desperate the situation. 'Speech Sounds' is another story about people trying to get by in a post-civilized world, but the very curse that has destroyed the world—the loss of speech and language—prevents people from working together and thus rising above their animal instincts. A very intelligent and thought-provoking story.

Finally I note two pieces that begin as very typical post-apocalyptics, with shattered cities and populations mysteriously decimated, but bring something new and fresh to the genre. 'The End of the World as We Know It' follows one man, unextraordinary and unheroic, who finds himself the only survivor of an instantaneous and inexplicable extinction event. The story tries a little too hard to be a self-conscious commentary on the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole, but where it succeeds is in the simplicity of the current story—the greatest tragedy for the protagonist is the loss of what made his own life special: his home and his wife. No new adventures and fresh start can make up for this; the world has ended for him. A similarly hopeless situation arises in 'A Song Before Sunset', in which an old musician has spent several years eking out an existence hunting rats and trading with other desperate survivors while avoiding the gangs of marauding Vandals who are intent on bringing down the last remnants of old civilization. Without hope of actually improving life or developing a constructive community, the protagonist's one ambition is to play a concert piano one last time before the last of mankind's cultural institutions is burned to the ground. A sober, understated, and thoughtful piece.

There are other good stories in here, and only a handful of predictable or incomprehensible pieces. As an exercise in collecting together stories that are worth reading, Adams has done a successful job (although most of these pieces are from very mainstream publications: half of the titles were originally published in Asimov's or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazines); as far as achieving that sought-after coherence that every anthologist strives for, this was perhaps less impressive. Still a volume well worth purchasing for fans of the post apocalyptic genre.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Submission Guidelines

“A good critic will exercise his imagination to find value in a book before he delivers the death blow.”
For TFF Review submission guidelines for publishers, authors and reviewers, please now see our Guidelines page (or select the Guildelines tab above).