Being Gregor Samsa (published in Deccan Herald circa 2007)

In November 2006, I saw a production of David Farr & Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith in London.

The evening began badly. We were trying to decide between Metamorphosis (existential angst) and a new fringe production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (nudity). No guessing how the coin fell!

And so we headed to Shephard’s Bush. It took an hour of walking from the tube stop, past the drunks on the Green, a leery Afghani grocer (“Why are you looking for Bush Hall, eh?”), some Somalian kids on roller blades and at least one porn shop before we found the theatre. It was boarded up! Apparently, the new and nude version closed after 3 shows. Luckily, the Lyric was just one tube stop away.

But first, the challenges. Can a text as dense as Kafka’s Metamorphosis be adapted suitably for stage? How does one communicate, theatrically, the complexities of a domestic situation that cause a young man to shift outside himself and to unravel? How do you perform loneliness and alienation? How do you translate, without artifice, the horror of a man who wakes up one morning only to find he is “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” when it’s overcast outside? And how does one depict that most difficult of rasas, repugnance? Bhibatsa - the defining reaction of the family to the changed Gregor Samsa.

Metamorsphosis was first adapted for stage by Steven Berkoff in 1969. He wrote Meditations on Metamorphosis to cover the span of his 23 years of rehearsal and musings on Kafka. He played the lead initially, and over the years other actors took over, including Tim Roth, Roman Polanski and finally Mikhail Baryshnikov. Phillip Glass composed music for two separate stage versions. Rene Migliaccio directed a film/live theatre adaptation that opened at La Mama recently and at home, Ajay Krishnan, a young Bangalore writer is currently working on an adaptation.

In the production I saw - The questions above are moot, for we were captivated immediately. The set, designed by Börkur Jónsson, consisted of two floors. A realistic, early 20th century European family room downstairs. And Gregor’s bedroom upstairs, where everything is supra-real and entirely vertical! The bed was nailed to the upstage wall, as were the chair, an umbrella and everything else in it. There was a skylight that I was strangely unaware of, till it opened and was used to perfection during Gregor’s death scene. For Steven Berkoff’s set, he uses a grid and not much else. In this set design, the gothic nature of the furniture, the very domesticity and unquestioned conformity downstairs contributes to an asphyxiating sense of alienation.

Gisli, who besides co-directing plays the lead, makes the abstraction that is Metamorphosis a very real anxiety for any one who bears the sole responsibility of earning and taking care of a family. He plays Gregor in a black suit and tie. No weird insect suits. And then he proceeds to climb all over the set, metamorphosed by the beauty of his actions into a dung beetle. There is a great moment when the invalid mother turns an unexpected somersault on the table in her glee at the Chief Clerk’s possible interest in Grete. But it’s never indulgent. The athleticism of the actors is balanced by the ability of the text to wound you. When Grete stops caring for Gregor, the very Gregor who has cared so much about her violin lessons, you don’t know quite what to do. When his family is equally embarrassed and repulsed by him it’s not at all unbelievable. One could feel Gisli as Gregor palpably shrink, dirty himself (in an amazing theatrical moment of powder and wetness) and fester with rejection. He dies in a swirl of red silk hanging upside down from the skylight, limp above the dining table. In minutes, Gregor is history as winter turns to spring and we see Grete swinging in the animated sunshine of the park. Music plays and her parents applaud her and what is bad and oppressive is forgotten in the brittle optimism of normalcy.

Three of the four leads are from Vesturport Theatre, a seminal Icelandic company who have previously performed Romeo and Juliet and Buchner’s Woyzeck. They took performance to the next level with their vocal and physical skills.

We left the theatre clutching our thoughts very close and trying to keep warm. In the tube going home, past the crazy pinks and greens of neon signs, I heard some school kids talking about the play. “…all alone in a naff crowd……feel out of it…..had to die….BO!” A novel written in 1915: postmodern solutions for 2007. Go figure.

Kafka wrote "This tremendous universe that I have inside my head, how can I free myself and set it free without being torn to pieces? Yet I would a thousand times rather do that than keep it confined or buried within myself. This is what I am here for. I have no doubt whatsoever of that."

And so we do. Unwrap, adapt, deconstruct. Just in order to see a little better. Take another step. Free ourselves.

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