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.
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.