Fourth & Main is a fly on the wall at the Lyric's production of Franz Kafka's masterpiece
David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s take on Metamorphosis is a dizzying spectacle and altogether moving piece of theatre. While it contains a profound performance at its core, the production’s power lies in the delight with which it adapts Kafka’s classic. Rather than a stagnant rehashing of the tale, this production revels in the text, makes what it will of its malleable symbolism, and in the process shines new light on Kafka’s genius.
Sixty pages of the starkest, yet most emphatic prose of the last century, Metamorphosis truly is different for every reader. First time around, Gregor Samsa’s casually unexplained transformation into a creepy-crawly seemed to epitomise the alienation of adolescence (what with all that awkward, dysfunctional body stuff) and by proxy the partially self-inflicted isolation of all outsiders - like Camus’ scuttling crab.
On my second reading, after a family member had been diagnosed with MS, its analogy of a lonely transformation made irreversible by suffering made me cry. Through the eyes of this production, the central motif metamorphoses again, proving the novella to be a true parable that says something - many things - that are essential and true of humanity.
Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir and Kelly Hunter in Metamorphosis - photo by Eggert Þór Jónsson
For Farr and Gardarsson the most interesting transformation is not Gregor’s grotesque mutation, but his sister Greta’s very human and disturbingly understandable transition from patience and sensitivity to negligence and then into cruelty. Doing away with the original stream of consciousness narration, the audience is further distanced from Gregor by intelligent set design. Downstairs is all drab normality in the family room, but upstairs in his bedroom the perspective is skewed so that we look in bird’s-eye-view style. Not only is this disorientating, adding to the queasy, unsettling nature of what we see and giving it an air of imprisonment, but it also adds an element of voyeurism. We are perving on his pain, unable to empathise and unwittingly complicit.
Greta and her parents are set up as a thinly veiled representation of twentieth century atrocity. They rejoice in their newly humbled position, decreeing that “work will set us free”; but the play’s most obvious parallel is to the German Fascist state. It is when they switch pronouns calling their son ‘it’ and not ‘he’ that they are able to justify their desire to exterminate him, similar to the way Nazis linguistically dehumanised Jews in Auschwitz. The play intelligently takes what Kafka says about human relations and explodes them onto a sociological scale, whilst remaining within the family microcosm.
Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith - photo by Eddi
For all its complexities and multiple meanings, this production remains sensitive to the very real anguish of its victim. In contrast to the play’s evasive language, the bodies and movement onstage betray the truth. Where the family are stylised and theatrical, pointing to the performative nature of their routine and petty existences, Gardarsson’s performance is lithely physical, as he swings and crawls around his topsy-turvy room. Though his movement is alien, it is alive and his pain real.
Metamorphosis is at the Lyric Hammersmith until February 16th
Metamorphosis - photo by Sam Rosewarne