My `Metamorphosis'

Steven Berkoff looks back to August 1969 and recalls the trials, the tribulations and the ultimate euphoria of putting on his one-man production of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis at the Roundhouse in north London

Thirty years ago this month, I staged my version of Kafka's Metamorphosis at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. I was drawn to the building as if it was beckoning me or even welcoming me. Instead of saying, bring me your tired, your weary... it was saying, bring me your strange, your bizarre, your different... and nothing could have been more different than Kafka.

I discovered Kafka by chance in my late-teens and have been his willing ally and defender ever since. I felt he interpreted me, and I wished to interpret him since he seemed to strike at the very fabric of what is our humanity stripped bare. After reading Kafka, everything had to stand comparison, yet little could.

It was the terribly bleak observations that he made about us and the biting truths we were forced to swallow, since in all of us there is a little of the Gregor Samsa beetle, or Joseph K, the man of guilt. Also, Metamorphosis contained the prime requisite for my kind of drama: it was strangely beautiful, frightening and, of course, surreal. The barking at the social order by our angry men seemed to be so dated and irrelevant to me at the time.

But how to stage Metamorphosis was a real task, and I made several versions where we could only see the beetle via the family. How could we show the metamorphosis of a young man turning into this monster creature within the limitations of the theatre? I imagined, at the most, a shadow created by the family as they raised their arms in horror that "accidentally" resembled an insect. I had forgotten about imagination.

However, I had been immersed in mime and this was going to underscore the piece. In mime we are always made to have the courage to stimulate the audience's imagination, hoping they will see what we only suggest. The brain of a spectator is not only like a hungry animal, it is a playful child that will seize upon the suggestion of a thing and eagerly fill in the rest. It is in the "filling in" that the audience becomes almost a participant. They are engaged, their imagination is almost involuntarily switched on. Their perceptions are in full demand. They must believe. Or at least believe in the symbol, the struggle to create the insect.

I heard at that time of a student production at Oxford directed by John Abulafia and, with great curiosity, I dashed up to see it and was astounded by the fact that it is indeed true, that if you enact something non-human, animalistic, the conviction in the actor's feeling alone will enable the audience to share the idea with you.

It was almost painfully simple, as are all great ideas. The actor merely sat behind a large box, his arms criss-crossed, giving the impression of limbs jutting from his shoulders, or even the sad effects of thalidomide. It completely answered the question for me.

I wished to go further, and had to, since I wanted to create the entire creature and have the family be part of that experience. I crawled on the floor, legs spread out behind me like broken limbs, arms at a 45-degree angle to the floor or criss-crossed. I wished to see Gregor climb his walls and so we created a scaffolding that the creature could climb and, as it were, hang from the ceiling.

As one problem was solved or even attempted, another would develop from it, and soon a whole piece of theatre organically linked to movement, text and set was forming and it was a time full of trepidation and excitement. The family expressed their movement to the steady tick of the metronome as they slept, walked or ate, thus demonstrating the daily ritual of their predictable lives and their ticking clock neatly fell into step with the insect's movements as if it was born out of the misery of the family's routine: the family members were like dislocated bits of the insect.

It gradually seemed to click into place. At first I was ruled by fear... fear of the most abject failure, which held me back for a while, like: dare I rent the theatre and what if the time came and I couldn't do it... what then? But the mantra I always gave myself was that I wouldn't die! And that in four weeks' time the world would still be there and probably me with it.

Decisions for me in those days were a matter of life and death. My wife, designer and painter Alison Minto, helped me to conceive the set and Martin Beaton, an architect ally, made a model. However, I would not be able to try it out until the day the set was up, and the following day would be the performance! Would I be able to do the climbing?

The rest of the play had miraculously come together, since we had found a key to the staging - an odd mixture of mime and kabuki - and yet the language was spoken with the utmost realism. I was indeed fortunate in my cast since each was perfect for their role. George Little, Jeanie James, Petra Markham, and Chris Muncke as the leader of the clerks and the lodger. (Chris was a student of mine when I taught at drama school.)

After a rather nervous try-out at Lamda early in the year, we became bold and decided to rent the Roundhouse. So confident were we after the Lamda experience and the positive comments from the audience, we were sure that we could achieve just double the Lamda audience to break even. Martin Beaton and I went to a money-lender in Leicester Square and borrowed the capital at an interest rate of 49 per cent. We were that convinced that after a month we would be able to pay it all back. We were invincible.

George Hoskins, the then administrator, used to run the egg- marketing board and had been recommended to Arnold Wesker by Harold Wilson. Wesker's amazing vision had got the whole Roundhouse thing going, although by then he had slipped out and George was commander-in-chief. He had allocated a three-week stint to us in the beginning of July, an almost dead-zone for starting a new show. The poster went up, conceived by Alison and myself and in suitably Gothic Sixties style, but plastered right over the central panel of the building. No one could have been more proud to see it wrapped round the curve of the Roundhouse.

Just to make life a little more difficult, I performed as a curtain- raiser an adaptation of Kafka's In the Penal Colony, a sweaty tour de force written with Kafka's usual, almost supernatural imagination for things not of this world, such as an execution machine which inscribes your sentence on to your body.

Bookings were slow since the sunshine is a great deterrent to the theatre, and we waited patiently. One by one the reviews came out and they were positive to a man. We could breathe again, and no one was more exultant and relieved than me. We were occupying the great and tremendous Roundhouse where, just a few weeks earlier, the Living Theatre had been frightening the life out of the audience with their politicised version of Frankenstein. On the Sunday, the Rolling Stones were doing their gig since Sunday was rock'n'roll night.

We ambled along until Harold Hobson's Sunday Times review came out, unfortunately missing the first Sunday. Even so, The Observer was enthusiastic, with good, quotable chunks. On the last Sunday, with just a week to go, Hobson's piece was like reading one's review by flashes of lightning. I have never received one quite like it, and was almost embarrassed by riches. He described the beetle leaving its room and approaching the audience as an effect as terrifying as Irving's might have been in The Bells when performing a particular piece. A giant picture accompanied the review. From then on we were sold out, practically the only London theatre to be so during a heatwave.

We finished in euphoria and were glad to get to the end since the two shows daily were exhausting for a virtual theatrical novice. We returned in 1974 to perform Kafka's The Trial and in 1980 with Hamlet.

The Roundhouse, like its name, had no edges or boundaries and seemed to accept you as long as you had no boundaries either. A temple where you could worship whatever god you wished and offer what sacrifices you will... as long, mind you, as they were metaphorically bloody. I recall many good nights there seeing Joe Chaiken's Open Theatre, as well as the Living Theatre, though sadly past their stunning best. When, in later years, the Roundhouse was "cleaned up", it seemed to lose its character and, becoming more respectable, its aura seemed to go. I liked it when it was whorish, welcomed you with open arms and you could visit the long bar whether you were seeing a show or not, so the place was always buzzing.

Last week I returned for the first time in many years to see De La Guarda. A spectacle inspired by Meyerhold and Artaud. The building was alive again. It was beaming. It was shocking! Sacrifices were once again being offered.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific