By Franz Kafka, adapted by David Farr and Gìsli Örn Garðarsson
Lyric Hammersmith and Vesturport
Lyric Hammersmith

Gísli Örn Garðarsson (Gregor) & Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir (Greta) in Metamorphosis Credit: Eggert Þór Jónsson
Gísli Örn Garðarsson (Gregor) Credit: Eggert Þór Jónsson
Gísli Örn Garðarsson (Gregor) Credit: Eggert Þór Jónsson
Metamorphosis Credit: Sam Rosewarne

Returning to London after its acclaimed run in 2006, Metamophosis, a co-production between the Lyric Hammersmith and the acrobatically-inclined Icelandic company Vesturport, is an innovative, physical take on Kafka’s original. And, although the current production takes some time to hit its stride, overall the show is well worth the price of admission.

The ingenuity of this piece rests in how it challenges theatre conventions. As re-envisioned by the producing companies, the man-gone-bug at the centre of Kafka’s existential story, Gregor (played with great vulnerability by Gìsli Örn Garðarsson), is seen throughout the play from a cinematic bird’s eye view. Sitting atop an ordinary downstairs living room, Gregor’s room is presented to spectators from an aerial perspective, with Gregor scuttling beetle-like throughout his upended space thanks to acrobatic training and various hand-sized grooves in the set. (Think indoor climbing gym.)

This element of the production is masterful. As Gregor’s family’s behaviour shifts from abuse to neglect (i.e., the delivery of meals to his room becomes increasingly infrequent), his isolation and devastation are embodied by Garðarsson, who desperately clings to the set.

A particularly arresting moment occurs at the play’s conclusion. Before succumbing to starvation and depression, Gregor scuttles to open his window, at which point a shower of light and rain is released in his room, providing a striking metaphor for his bodily transcendence.

Gìsli Örn Garðarsson’s commendable work as Gregor is matched by his keen efforts with David Farr to co-adapt Kafka’s original narrative. This smart re-envisioning of the 1912 story serves as a particularly incisive analogy for Hitler’s treatment of Jews, though it functions to stand-in for multiple acts of subjugation, characterizing alienated communities (e.g. American slaves, indigenous people as oppressed by Western colonizers). Gregor is exiled from society, experiencing the literal loss of personhood and its inherent rights. He faces repeated victimization and threats of extermination due to his identity. Herein, Farr and Garðarsson’s powerful allusion to persecution resonates.

Initial difficulties getting this production off the ground come down to style. Gregor is the only character with any human appeal in this re-telling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. As directed by Farr and Garðarsson, actors Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir (playing Gregor’s sister, Greta) Kelly Hunter (his mother) and Ingvar E Sigurðson (his father) occupy their roles with broad caricature-like strokes from the outset.

In the beginning, this has a jarring effect. While these actors play their characters with obvious rigidity (clearly an aesthetic choice made by the directors), the vitality and genuine quality of Garðarsson’s performance feels as if from another world.

Nonetheless, as Farr and Garðarsson’s analogy to human oppression begins to take shape, this inconsistency reveals its purpose. Gregor’s persecutors are painted with broad strokes because they’re meant to act as one-dimensional stand-ins for various figures of oppression. The absurdity of the oppressor is further highlighted when Greta’s lodger-cum-suitor (Jonathan McGuinness) appears in a scene punctuated by fantastic comic moments.

Thanks to the efforts of Vesturport, the Lyric Hammersmith and talented set designer Börkur Jónsson, this re-envisioning of Metamorphosis is rich with potential meanings. Why not join Gregor in his room and see what the journey evokes for you?

Reviewer: Melissa Poll

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