Making pictures of words

Adapting acclaimed books for stage is a difficult procedure though Metamorphosis can be counted as a very successful attempt, according to Oonagh Murphy

Adapting acclaimed books for stage is a difficult procedure though Metamorphosis can be counted as a very successful attempt, according to Oonagh Murphy

An overriding literary theme can be seen in this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival – one can’t help but wonder if the programmers have only recently discovered their local library. Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fyodor Dostoevsky. An index of the classic and contemporary reefed up from the annals and transposed in a myriad of forms on to the stage.

It is no surprise that Franz Kafka, one of the most theatrically inspiring authors of all time, appears in a festival which promised, in its austere and provocative marketing, to make us “feel.” Kafka’s Metamorphosis – a short story about a family thrown into crisis when its son, and breadwinner, transforms overnight into a dung beetle – is a tale for our times. Asking quiet questions about the meaning of individuality in a society that increasingly sees humans as anything but individual, Metamorphosis resounds as much today as ever before.

Of course, when adapting for stage from acclaimed books, the content needs no work, but the form poses a problem. The Vesturport Theatre Company and Lyric Hammersmith production, however, is a success.

What is beautiful about Kafka’s writing is his ability to write both descriptively and allegorically. Borkor Jonsson’s set encapsulates this juxtaposition perfectly. A split-level, vertigo-inducing cross-section of the Samsa family’s house, the set is both sumptuous and sparse, both metaphorical and literal. The ground floor section is a drawing room with clutter, picture frames and rickety furniture. Leading away from the lower area, a steep stairway climbs to the room of Gregor (Gísli Örn Gardarsson). An impressive feat of engineering, this section of the set allows the audience to see the room as though from a bird’s-eye view. The effect is non-realistic and topsy-turvy, giving the surreal concept of the play freedom to evolve. Throughout, the routines of family below in their “right-side-up world play against the image of Gregor climbing from chair to bed to wall, in what appear to be gravity-defying flights of frustration, but are actually highly skilled acrobatics.

The play’s more abstract issues are pushed forward by such contrasts – of a body in crisis versus a body at ease, of accepted social interaction around a table versus isolation and destitution, of speech that is coherent and eloquent versus noise that no longer resembles phonetic language. Gregor morphs into a “creature” that no longer has “control over himself,” impounding the routine and normality that the family yearns for.
Excellent use of physicality in the play’s initial stages establishes the theme of routine-breaking that facilitates conflict later on. The characters are well defined, if caricatured, but this is easier to accept in Kafka’s surrealistic world. Nina Dogg Filippusdottir plays the role of the diligent and loving sister, Grete, skillfully, her transformation into a spoilt gold-digger marked by discernible physical development.
Kelly Hunter is also strong as the quintessential hysterical female – a mother who’s love for her son does not stretch to overcome her asthma attacks and neurosis at the thoughts of what the neighbours might think. Similarly, Ingvar E Sigurösson’s father is played with precision and flair, the archetypal patriarch who swells with pride at his own endeavour in the workplace. As a unit, the three perform fluidly and respond well kinesthetically to one another, creating a unified reaction of disgust and, later, contempt for Gregor.

However, it is with the arrival of the fifth character, Herr Fischer, that the physicality of the piece loses it power. The relationship between the family and a potential lodger, and possible suitor for Grete, is demonstrated through over-the-top displays of passion, allusion to sexual attraction and general silliness. Admittedly, it is true that the production needs lighter tones to lift itself out of otherwise depressing subject matter. However, the more subtle elements of parody during the initial half of the play are more in keeping with its overall vision and relay its message more successfully. With the amount of shouting and jumping up and down on tables which occurs before the lodger’s discovery of Gregor, it is difficult for the cast to take the ensuing panic, repulsion, and eventual rejection to any other level but hysteria.

These turning points – the revelation of previously unseen circumstance or characteristics – are intrinsic to Kafka’s writing. Metamorphosis, when examined as a phrase indicates this transformation. The transformation is both literal – a man transforms into a dung beetle – but also figurative one – a meta-morphosis one. What is strong about the production is its ambiguity regarding Gregor’s state. Not once is he referred to as a beetle. Instead, his breakdown and the family’s disgust are left wide open for interpretation. There are excellent moments of metaphor: the father’s throwing of Gregor’s chair out the window is a succinct demonstration of the family’s pre-occupation with materiality. The production’s weaker points come when it loses such ethereality and goes for literal gold.

The final section is marked by the image of Gregor hanging from the curtain of bedroom window. The skilled performer is able to hang for the last five minutes of the show as the other characters discuss going to the garden to behold its “fragrant beauty.” The implication is that Gregor has long been dead to the family – since he ceased to be the bread winner – and that they are now determined to return to the normality and “beauty” of everyday life, no longer to be distracted by the depravity and ugliness of his existence. It would be sufficient for the characters to finish out the piece by returning to the routines that featured in the exposition, complete with the beautiful opening musical score. Instead, the directors decided to go for literality. The upstairs bedroom section opens into a spring garden, resplendent with blossoms and leaves. The final image sees the parents throwing petals, from little wicker baskets, over Grete as they push her on a swing, while Gregor hangs below them. It was insidiously un-imaginary and un-theatrical.

For a piece that plays with surrealism throughout, the opening out on to a garden that looks like a set from a Chekhov play leaves a superficial taint. Any previous subtlety or allegory is smashed by such sickly cinematic sentimentality. Even the music – by the acclaimed Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – which is minimalist but atmospheric throughout, finally allays to lyrics which are, again, void of metaphor or allusion
The director may have been attempting a clever juxtaposition, but what it gave instead were two jarring images. Audiences don’t need contrasts and ironies pointed out. The greater experiences are those that allow ambiguity and interpretation.

Regardless of this, the production does encapsulate the meta-message extremely well. Articulating the danger inherent in a society which views a human being in terms of output, efficiency and net-worth, productions such as these might give light to further transformation, revelation and change. Thus, this adaptation of such a classic is well orchestrated and justified.