Review by Sam Waite
Over a century after its release, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis still has its satirical bite, making it an oft-adapted story across all mediums. Nearing their own 30th anniversary, Frantic Assembly bring a UK tour of their take on the classic tale of horror and revulsion to a close at the Lyric Hammersmith, keeping their well-honed combination of movement theatre and dynamic storytelling at the forefront of both new and familiar plot beats.
Unlike Kafka’s original, Frantic’s version gives us ample time to get to know Gregor Samsa before his mysterious transformation into an insect-like creature. The young Mr Samsa announces to us his love of fabrics before bounding off to his work as a travelling salesman of these very fabrics - this cycle repeats, with increased strain to the delivery and reduced energy in the movement, as we come to realise Gregor has become the sole provider for his sister, their parents, and the family’s debts. When, finally, his transformation takes place, we’ve been shown just how necessary Gregor's wellness and ability to work have become to the household.
Despite a strong cast five, the immediate star of Metamorphosis is Jon Bausor’s perspective-bending set. Gregor’s bedroom, with its sharp angles and diagonal ceiling, is already a great example of forced perspective upon entry - then the set begins to rotate as the story becomes more distressing and confusing. Only the bottom of the set actually shifts, further warping the walls and bringing to life the strain and confusion caused by Gregor's transformation. As he acrobatically scrambles up walls and hangs from a light fitting, the frame supporting the set sways with his weight - whether Bausor’s intent or a happy coincidence, this adds greatly to the building unease in both Gregor and his family.
Actor and movement artist Felipe Pacheko brings a stunning physicality to the role of Gregor, beginning with an Astaire-esque routine to dress up for work, and moving into presenting his newly warped body without the use of prosthetic enhancements. He later leans into the psychological horror at the core of his role, spending an impressive amount of time at exhausting heights of anguish and misery. Also very good is younger sister Greta, played here by Hannah Sinclair Robinson. She manages to balance the confusion of a girl so fanatically devoted to her sibling that the feelings begin to suggest deeply uncomfortable desires, and later to convey the displeasure and mental strain of becoming her deformed brother’s caretaker.
Indeed, director Scott Graham makes fine use of his cast, moving them and Bausor’s furnishings about the stage in both literal (continuous looping back to the bedroom door for entry) and metaphorical presentations of their movements, both physical add emotional - sometimes the family simply step through the fourth wall in and out of the room, particularly when presenting a more abstract piece of storytelling. The remainder of his players, father Troy Glasgow, mother Louise Mai Newberry, and multi-roler Joe Layton, do well with the physicality and bold movement quintessentially to Frantic Assembly’s work. Graham uses the movement to tell us more about these characters - Greta, age undisclosed, moves with a girlish lightness, while their mother will hug the men in her life while says leaving the embrace with their money now hers to count.
An OBE-awarded poet and author, Lemn Sissay takes up the mantle of adapter for Metamorphosis, bringing his elegant and textured writing beautifully to the stage. What could come across as simply repetition to hammer home a point or a too-rambling soliloquy for Gregor's increasingly harried family members are artful and well-shaped under Sissay’s pen. For instance, Greta laments her time wasted on the violin, calling it an insect sucking at her neck, before insisting that she loves the violin. At this point her beloved elder brother is still only a man, but the implication is still there that she feels such harsh resentment for the very love she’s built her dreams on. Sissay also leaves us to decide whose metamorphosis we are really observing - eyes, it’s Gregor who is transformed, but each member of the household, and the trio as a collective, undergo poetic and clearly-defined changes from beginning to end.
With omnipresent music from composer Stefan Janik and encompassing, involving sound design room Helen Skiera bringing us into the Samsa household, it’s difficult to feel disengaged with this woeful family unit. Where some would prefer moments of silent calm, and others have expressed the feeling that the music overwhelmed the dialogue, I felt that it was always complimentary and a welcome addition to the work. Perhaps this was a matter of my placement in the venue, and those sat elsewhere had a harder time reconciling everything that was thrown their way. Nevertheless, the music itself was always exciting, and the sound of rain from all around the room greatly engaged me during a second act scene.
Bold in its approach and electric in its eventual atmosphere, Metamorphosis is a commanding but likely divisive production. With projections from Ian William Galloway being vibrant and dynamic but a touch too vague in a show where so much is already left for its audience to decipher, and the story as many already know it to truly beginning until the closing scenes of the first act, many will dismiss this version as “too much”. Still, the power in its staging and the dedication of the performances is undeniable, and I for one found myself captivated by another exciting, emotionally rich addition to the Frantic oeuvre.
Metamorphosis plays at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until March 2nd
For ticket and information visit https://lyric.co.uk/shows/metamorphosis/
Photos by Tristram Kenton