'Metamorphosis' review – poet Lemn Sissay transforms Kafka's celebrated study in shape-shifting

Read our two-star review of this new adaptation of Metamorphosis, now in performances at the Lyric Hammersmith to 2 March.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Don’t look for one of the most celebrated opening lines in all of literature in the Frantic Assembly version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which has reached London following a national tour.

Though generations of schoolchildren have thrilled to the image of Gregor Samsa awakening to find himself “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”, Kafka’s seminal 1915 novella has itself been transformed in this telling of it.

As adapted by the author and poet Lemn Sissay, this study in shape-shifting offers a prompt for the physical workout one might expect from Frantic Assembly, the movement-based theatre company perhaps best known for their contribution to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Scott Graham, co-founder of Frantic Assembly, is the director here.

But even as the company – Felipe Pacheco’s Gregor especially – is gyrating this way and that within the evocatively distressed, angled bedroom that is Jon Bausor’s set, Sissay sets the action against some two hours of what feels like nonstop, often-impenetrable text. The fantastical expressionist leanings of the design – Simisola Majekodunmi’s bravura lighting included – exist at odds with the earthbound writing.

You applaud the initiative of the production in reaching out to school groups, who were evident in abundance one recent evening. But you also have to wonder how they dealt with an unyielding pile-up of language that obscures the power of Kafka’s original, rather than illuminating it afresh.

The focus, for starters, isn’t solely on Gregor. Instead, we clock the attachment of sister Greta (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) to her cherished violin, alongside hints of an incestuous rapport between the siblings that may be a function of the enclosed hothouse they inhabit.

Gregor, in turn, suggests a spider caught in the tightening web of both a fractious, financially strapped family and an existence as a salesman that might give even Willy Loman pause. Whether suspended from a light fixture or defying gravity as he scales the walls, this Gregor exists in search of an escape route that life won’t allow – as Sissay’s rhetorical overload doesn’t either.

There probably isn’t a more ideal literary source for a theatrical fusion of acrobatics and dance, and I for one recall both Mikhail Baryshnikov’s mesmeric Broadway turn as Gregor in 1989 (directed by Steven Berkoff, no less) and Edward Watson crawling his way through black goo in Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House in 2011.

So it seems mildly perverse to sacrifice the visceral power of the material on the altar of lengthy expositions pertaining to the economic grind of daily life and the vicelike grip of familial dysfunction.

The result, too, leads several of the cast into a declamatory style of acting that makes one doubly grateful for the return of a physical elasticity to lighten the verbal load.

It’s exciting, of course, when theatre widens its embrace to bring into the fold writers from one arena to try their hand in another, as such gifted talents as Ben Okri and Inua Ellams have at various times managed so well. The issue here is that a protean wordsmith is still finding his way into a story whose physical brio is bogged down by its text.

Metamorphosis is at the Lyric Hammersmith through 2 March. Book Metamorphosis tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Metamorphosis (Photo by Tristram Kenton)

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