Patrick reviews the latest reimagining of Frank Kafka’s allegorical novella, as theatre group Vanishing Point take its tricky-to-adapt narrative and rework it for the stage.
Franz Kafka spent almost his entire life in Prague’s small Jewish district, which he called “my prison cell - my fortress”. Despite a successful career as an insurance clerk, he remained in his parents’ apartment, with pervasive fear and hatred of his domineering, abusive father. By most accounts, his life was ordinary and uneventful, leaving little impact on those he encountered every day. But by night, he honed an amazing talent which made him one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Hunched over a small desk, with relatives barging in and out of the room, he wrote stories that completely changed the paradigms of literature. They recounted the lives of ordinary, everyday people like himself, who find themselves in bizarre, fantastic scenarios. Perhaps the most famous of these is Metamorphosis, the story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who is transformed overnight into a giant insect, and the source of Vanishing Point’s latest production at Tron Theatre - The Metamorphosis.
"The play cleverly brings the work to the present day, showing how timeless its message is."
The play cleverly brings the work to the present day, showing how timeless its message is. In his story, Kafka wrote brilliantly about his character’s demeaning working life, which makes him like an insect long before the physical transformation. The play updates this to perhaps the most recognisable of these jobs today: delivering food under gig economy apps. Samsa now works for a fictional delivery app, portrayed with hilarious accuracy. Despite forcing its workers to labour long, arduous hours for low, insulting pay, the managers wear a kind, progressive face, assuring the audience that they have no employees, only “partners”. Like many who work these delivery jobs, his entire life is consumed by the non-stop work. He can’t even get it out of his head after his transformation. Once he finds himself in an unusual state, he notes that his increase in legs will at least improve his cycling skills and allow him to make more deliveries.
The story is a very difficult one to portray on stage, its core moment – the change from man to bug – requiring an almost impossible feat of special effects. Instead of using a literal bug costume, Samsa’s transformation is presented with two actors. Nicholas Alban plays him in his original, human state, and the position his mind remains in even after the transformation. His insect state is played by Nico Guerzoni, a brilliant young Italian actor. To show the broken relationship with his family, he speaks only in his native language. Subtitles are provided for the audience, but the rest of the characters are left at a loss.
Essential to Kafka’s stories are the incredible rooms and buildings they take place in. From the cramped apartment where he crafted at night, to the beautiful theatres and synagogues nearby, he took note of all his architectural surroundings, reproducing them with amazing detail. His novel The Castle is filled with these fantastic, dreamlike rooms, spreading out into infinite spirals and fractals. The action of “metamorphosis” takes place in a much more nightmarish location: Gregor’s bedroom, the dark chamber at the heart of his family’s building. This room is portrayed fantastically by the production team, who put great care into every one of its details and amazingly contrast the shade and lighting. A screen at the top of the stage also projects more views of the room, showing how it has changed before and after the transformation.
"Essential to Kafka’s stories are the incredible rooms and buildings they take place in. From the cramped apartment where he crafted at night, to the beautiful theatres and synagogues nearby..."
The play is mostly faithful to the original work but takes creative liberties with its ending. At the close of Kafka’s story, Gregor, having been rejected by his family time and again, curls up in his bedroom and silently dies. The play changes this to a more modern approach. The family, unable to deal with Gregor’s situation, instead hire an exterminator to kill him with poison gas. The effects are amazing, and the smoke rolls and trundles around the audience, bringing them closer into the story.
Whether you are an expert student of Kafka’s work or someone who has never read the original piece, this play will provide enormous excitement and entertainment, combining the humour and fear which make the story so great.
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