Franz Kafka, adapted by Lemn Sissay
Frantic Assembly with Theatre Royal Plymouth, Curve, MAST Mayflower Studios and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Bristol Old Vic

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Hannah Sinclair Robinson as Grete in Metamorphosis Credit: Tristram Kenton
Joe Layton in Metamorphosis Credit: Tristram Kenton
The Samsa family looking in on their son's bedroom Credit: Tristram Kenton
Felipe Pacheco as Gregor in Metamorphosis Credit: Tristram Kenton
Jon Bausor's set distorts menacingly in Metamorphosis Credit: Tristram Kenton
Gregor (Felipe Pacheco) and Grete (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) in Metamorphosis Credit: Tristram Kenton

Gregor Samsa seems to be the ideal son. Grinding away at his job as a fabric salesman, he supports his inexplicably incapacitated parents and his young sister’s dreams of playing the violin. But the pressure is immense and, hiding the fatigue from everyone, including himself, we witness his tragic, slow but inevitable breakdown. But this isn’t just a nervous breakdown but a complete transformation, and his life becomes almost a horror story.

The ominous signs are there from the start. Frantic Assembly throws everything into this production. Jon Bausor’s superb set stretches, funnel-shaped, to a vanishing point at the back of the stage, distorting perspectives. The fabric walls of the room billow and wrinkle, threatening to crack or consume the family within. A twisted ceiling menacingly threatens to crush those asleep on the elongated bed beneath. Helen Skiera’s sinister soundscape running throughout is brilliantly effective. Lighting and visuals from Simisola Majekodunmi and Ian William Galloway create a menacing atmosphere using light and disturbing flickering projections on the set as the unfortunate Gregor mutates into the ‘creature’.

Director Scott Graham makes full use of this theatre company’s physical roots. Intriugingly not opting for a costume transformation into the insect in the book, Gregor (Felipe Pacheco) twists, contorts, scuttles and even hangs from the ceiling once transformed into the insect in this story. It is an interesting choice, although probably initially confusing for those not already familiar with the story. With no obvious visual change to repel us, the sympathy of the audience to his situation is sharply focussed only on the changed behaviour of this family towards him. Now the situation is reversed and he can no longer support them, they themselves have to undergo their own metamorphosis into an economically productive family. But will they support him?

The ingenious creativity in the production and direction, however, is adrift from a dramatic narrative, which is often slow, repetitive and lacking in tension. In updating Kafka’s original, Lemn Sissay’s adaptation points to the cost of living and capitalism as the culprits of the family situation, ignoring the unexplained, previously economically inactive parents. Kafka’s may have intended to point the finger more at society and family dysfunction, implying the family rejected him less because of his repulsive appearance and more because he was economically dependent. Indeed, once the family tragically decide to close the door on the unfortunate Gregor, we see the daughter grown into a young woman—undergoing her own metamorphosis with a promising future in horrific contrast to her abandoned brother.

It's a superbly imaginative production. All five talented performers (Pacheco, Hannah Sinclair Robinson as Grete, Louise May Newberry as Mrs Samsa, Troy Glasgow as the father and Joe Layton as the clerk) produce physically compelling performances, intricately choreographed as they intertwine their movements with impeccable timing as their world turns upside down. The dialogue is well linked to movement, but with the script never really building tension, it is certainly more exciting theatrically than dramatically. A visual feast more than a complete evening at the theatre.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

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