Monday, April 20, 2009
Review: Metamorphosis (Vesturport Theatre/Lyric Hammersmith)
Franz Kafka’s novella where a man awakens to find he has transformed into a giant insect has been reimagined in many mediums since its original publication in 1915. Its latest internationally successful incarnation, a co-production between Iceland’s Vesturport Theatre and England’s Lyric Hammersith, conjures the mood of a Grimm fairy tale to explore the fable as an allegory for Jewish experience in 20th century Europe.
Metamorphosis’ clever design is integral to its success. Börkur Jónsson’s split-level set is striking, shifting Gregor’s upstairs room 90º so we are looking down on his furniture from above. I was not surprised to learn from one of the performers that the set was built in the rehearsal room early on in the process, as it has been fully taken advantage of by directors David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson, with Gregor’s newfound insect form moving intimately throughout the space. The startling images this produces are supported by Björn Helgason’s measured lighting design, and the atmosphere is created throughout by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ unsettling soundtrack.
However, it is Björn Thors’ bravura performance as Gregor that is the true focus of this show. From the moment he emerges from his straightjacket like bed, it is hard to take in anything other than his acrobatic movements within the warped environment of his family home. Whether it be crawling down the railing of the stairs, or simply sitting in a horizontal chair as if were nothing, the physical demands of the role are truly astounding. In the original production, the role was played by Gardarsson, co-adaptor/director, and it therefore must have been quite intimidating for Thors to take on, yet not a hint of this is ever revealed as he owns the stage throughout, with the family left feeling like a strong supporting cast. This doesn’t necessarily serve the story however, as it is the family’s response to Gregor’s condition which is the thematic focal point of the work.
Speaking of thematic, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we really needed another investigation of Jewish mistreatment, a topic which has already been explored at great length since the horrors of World War II. It seemed to me an odd choice to apply the story to the past given the current proliferation of fear throughout many first world nations. In the Sydney Morning Herald, director David Farr commented that he wanted the work to be open, as theatre should be a conversation, however I felt that among other things, the exaggerated gestures of the family and the father’s overt love of uniform made it hard to escape the references to Nazi Germany.
It is a credit to the work that my frustration with the interpretation did not stop me from engaging with the production. I thought that it was a rare example of ingenious design combining harmoniously with strong performances and a clear directorial vision. It is perhaps due to the show’s quality that I was so perturbed I didn’t share in this vision.
I’m a little more critical than that.
This production is the love child of amateurish bourgeois naturalism and lame 80’s physical theatre. I found the performances mannered and irritating, the set design pointlessly detailed and distracting and as for the gimmicky 90° angled upstairs trickery, putting aside the obvious strength it took Björn Thors to achieve the images I was never impressed by the strength of the images themselves. For a production which has been garnering praise for its physical verve and ingenuity (most recently by Simon Binns, see above), it felt as if it had run out of its bag of theatrical tricks too soon. The first half of the performance is basically only sustained by waiting to see how Gregor the insect will next use his environment and even the introduction of a trampoline, the removal of furniture to climb on and tearing a way down through the upper level floor is not consistently surprising enough. Once again I stress that I was impressed by the strength of the performer but not with the images themselves.
The piece was momentarily lifted by the presence of a prospective lodger for the family home Herr Fischer (Jonathan McGuinness), whose performance seemed to invigorate the other actors, or perhaps that was the presence of a clear cut dramatic situation with conflict and the promise of comedy. Sit-com stuff but certainly more entertaining than anything else that happened.
It seems problematic also for David Farr to speak of the piece being read as allegory for the 19th century Jewish experience, when considering that Kafka wrote this short story in 1915, twenty to thirty years before the Nazi’s came to power. Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware and a firm believer in the right of a director and company to reflect and interpret as they will, I’m certainly not advocating a kind of textual sanctity, I am not a bloodless, unimaginative stickler who complains when Shakespeare is performed with anything other than complete historical accuracy. I am simply questioning, just as Simon has, the relevance of this particular understanding of the work.
If David Farr considered the piece “open” and wished for it to be a “conversation”, why then did he refer to the Jewish experience at all, why not let us see it as we will? As the family dealing with a gay member (the monster closeted upstairs), the corrupting and transformative powers of economics or, like I did, as a mediocre and fairly irrelevant work with nothing much interesting to say nor a way of saying it interestingly.