Metamorphosis, Lyric, Hammersmith


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The Independent Culture

This co-production between the Lyric and Icelandic company, Vesturport, began life in 2006. It has since become an international hit. Catching up with it for the first time here, I have no difficulty in appreciating why.

Kafka's story begins with one of the most startling opening gambits in modern literature: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed into monstrous vermin.” The brilliant theatrical make-over – adapted and directed by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson – not only dispenses with that sentence but declines to make it verbally explicit at the outset what it is that has happened to this travelling salesman and anxious sole breadwinner of the family. And instead of presenting events from his point of view, it offers a drastically telling dual-perspective on the narrative.

On the bottom level of Borkur Jonsson's joltingly ingenious set, the asthmatic mother (Kelly Hunter), finger-wagging father (Ingvar E Sigurdsson) and initially solicitous sister (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) go about their banal, exaggeratedly choreographed breakfast rituals. Only gradually do we realise, thanks to Hartley T Kemp's expert lighting, that above this and at right angles to it, there is another room where we look down, from a surreal, fly-on-the ceiling angle, at Gregor lying panic-stricken on his bed.

The most telling stroke in this stage version is that what we, the audience, see throughout is a sensitive young man in suit and tie, with the further twist that Gisli Orn Gardarrson, in a performance of tremendous physical dexterity and emotional eloquence, doesn't need to  impersonate (so to speak) an insect. 

His body is forced into bug-like postures and gymnastic scuttles and dangling by the exigencies of his tilted cell with its weird hand-hold gashes in the walls. This wonderfully highlights the metaphoric eye-of-the-beholder nature of the metamorphosis and the imbalanced, neurotically charged domestic set-up that has produced it and it alerts you to how, ironically, the actual grotesques are the family as they shift from revulsion to outright hatred.  

The piece was composed in 1912 but the adaptation emphasises the politically prophetic dimension of the fable by turning Jonathan McGuiness's absurd and chilling lodger, with his talk of the day when undesirables will be exterminated, into a foretaste of the Nazis. There's a terrible pathos when, to a flourish of sudden plangent joy in Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's score, Gardarrson's heart-breaking Gregor hangs dead while his smug, liberated family move into a garishly blossomy spring.

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