by Franz Kafka
Adapted and Directed by David Farr and Gisli Örn Gardarsson
Dublin: Olympia Theatre
September 29 - October 4, 2008
Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Featuring Gisli Örn Gardarsson (Gregor), Ingvar E Sigurdsson (Father), Nina Dögg Filippusdöttor (Grete), Kelly Hunter (Mother), Jonathan McGuinness (Herren Stietl & Fischer)
Touring: Through 2009 - Hong Kong
When written in 1912, Metamorphosis no doubt represented Franz Kafka’s absorption of many of the personal and political tensions that defined the time in place in which he wrote it. The story, still beloved of college students the world over, has proved as durable as the genus of creature around which its story nominally revolves. Just in case you didn’t know, the story begins “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” From this absurd but simply stated premise, the story progresses with the merciless logic of a dream, and the metamorphosis with which it begins is not the only one that transpires. Gregor’s family, understandably taken back by his transformation, undergo changes themselves, though ones rooted more in social (and economic) reality. Gregor, abject, incomprehensible, is at once despised, feared, pitied, rejected, hidden, and eventually plotted against so that the family can get on with their lives, especially his sister Grete, who stands at the cusp of womanhood.
It’s a great story, and you’re probably familiar with it. Watching Vesturport Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith’s largely faithful adaptation at the Dublin Theatre Festival, it’s hard not to be struck by its contemporary aptness. Though over time one might have read this as a metaphorical tale of racial otherness, of sexual repression, or a critique of proto-fascism, the aspect that chimes today is its awareness of economics. That Gregor, a salesman, has economically sustained his family, who now find themselves in dire straits as he has become a giant insect and thus produces no income and merely consumes, is as striking a symbol of today as race, sexuality, or politics may have been in the past. And yet this production doesn’t force that reading - it simply emerges - and so do each of the other contexts, all of which are available to frame your response.
This is a strikingly clean adaptation of the story in this respect. The company allow many strands to develop and allow various interpretations. Like the adaptable insect, the tale proves its endurance in sustaining this reading, and this funny, engaging rendering doesn’t force it.
There are some performative aspects that are a little awkward, such as the Icelandic cast struggling with their English from time to time, but actor and director Gisli Örn Gardarsson (who plays Gregor) has also invited a deliberate archness and almost bio-mechanoid aspect to the movement and delivery that partially compensates for occasional hesitations. There is an air of a stylised comic-nightmarish dream about it, as you might expect, and this covers a wealth of sins (though not entirely).
The most striking aspect of the production is the design of the set, and it is this, along with the much vaunted musical contribution of singer and songwriter Nick Cave, that drew much of the pre-production hype. Börkur Jonsson’s set divides the stage into upstairs and downstairs space in the Samsa household, which is fair enough. He presents us with deliciously rank wallpaper cast in suitably mouldy light by Hartley TA Kemp. The lighting plays an important part in sustaining an atmosphere of unreality and otherworldliness, and strikes a good balance between horrific and comic tones. The real showpiece is Gregor’s room, though, which is set as a room viewed from directly above, whereas all the rest is classic ‘fourth wall’ to the front. It is in this space that Gardarsson as actor draws all attention to himself crawling from handhold to handhold mounted around the ‘walls’, keeping his feet off of the ground and creating a tremendous sense of disorientation and inhuman movement. One fears for his safety at times, no less so than the climax where Gregor expires, in this case suspended in the air from a velvet curtain as rain gently falls from his window.
It is perhaps a bit of a gimmick, this God’s eye view, but it’s a good one, and Gardarsson is not content to confine Gregor to this upstairs space for a sense of unease. When he enters the downstairs space, the actor works hard to avoid standing on solid ground, and leaps and climbs around in ways that rightly terrify the family who we can easily believe are seeing their son and brother transformed into a repulsive creature. Of course, he is recognisably human to us, and that is Gregor’s tragedy. His conscious reaction to the increasingly horrible events outside his body as his family turn on him generate all the feelings of sympathy and recognition that a classic monster requires, and Gardarsson’s movements are beautifully judged to achieve that effect.
The Cave score is less impressive than the set. Mainly a subtly effective but nearly inaudible underscore, there is only one song, so fans hoping for a Tom Waits Woyzeck / Blood Money - style musical experience will be very disappointed. They shouldn’t be so disappointed with the rest of it though, which, resonant with Cave’s aesthetic sensibility, is ghoulishly beautiful and, after a fashion, very entertaining.