Writer/Adaptor: Lemn Sissay OBE
Writer of Original Story: Franz Kafka
Director: Scott Graham
Designer: Jon Bausor
With an uncompromising, utterly captivating performance that combines the best of physical theatre with poetic language and stimulating storytelling, Frantic Assembly brings Franz Kafka’s novella to the stage. By taking on such an iconic tale, the company has created an abundance of intrigue before we’ve even set foot in the auditorium. Built the year before Metamorphosis was first published in 1915, the Connaught Theatre is surely the perfect historic venue for this production, and as we take our seats there’s a highly appropriate buzz from the audience.
Given that Kafka wrote one of the most famous opening lines in Western Literature, this production wisely chooses instead to take a run-up to its protagonist’s transformation into a gigantic insect. Felipe Pacheco masterfully plays Gregor Samsa, a travelling fabric salesman caught in the perpetually exhausting cycle of trying to pay off his family’s debt single-handedly. His sister is preoccupied with her fantasies of being a star, his mother is busy doting on her son’s imagined successes, and his father… well, he wants what he thinks should be coming to him. As Gregor hustles, his family holds out their hands for the spoils. They barely seem to notice how sick he is becoming. Until he cannot work, that is, and they start to see him differently.
To address the giant bug in the room, if you are expecting this performance to recreate visually the vibrant transformations on Frantic Assembly’s website, you might be a little disappointed. However, star Pacheco’s physicality throughout is absolutely outstanding and more than makes up the ground from man to bug. Even seeing his struggle beneath a bedsheet speaks to the grittiness of Kafka’s tragic tale, as do many brilliant design choices, which support a production about shifting perceptions.
The set is innovatively constructed so that it might be gradually twisted, stretching the fabric walls, and making them appear warped. If Gregor Samsa (Felipe Pacheco) is never truly comfortable at home, then neither are we. The design also plays with floating projections, smoke, and shadows to create some sublime sequences. In one such scene, alien forms – rather Ridley Scott-like – melt across the walls, merging beautifully with images of a violin. In another, shadows can be seen to depict an insect-like creature as Pacheco becomes wrapped in a handful of chairs. However, it should be noted that due to the walls they are projected upon, sadly these shadows are not visible from everywhere in the auditorium.
The way the cast uses the set and props is endlessly inspiring. The armchair becomes a battleground, one used ‘sensibly’ for a monologist, or more unnaturally – or perhaps naturally – to curl around. The fourth wall of Gregor’s room is broken repeatedly so that it becomes a welcome part of the domestic dance. Gregor (Pacheco) swinging on the light fixture, clambering up the walls, and perching on his upturned bed end are all thrilling moments to behold. One of the most extraordinary illusions of the show is when people disappear. To avoid reducing the gasps of shock that resonate then from the audience, we will not say more about that here, but it must be seen to be believed.
The casting for Metamorphosis is spot on, with Hannah Sinclair Robinson expertly playing Gregor’s naive sister Grete. Troy Glasgow brilliantly embodies Mr Samsa. While Louisa May Newbury shines as Mrs Samsa. Newbury gives a particularly stunning monologue in the second half as her character reflects on her life choices. The ominous Chief Clerk is played to villainous perfection by Joe Layton.
The pace of this production is unrelenting, the energy levels electric; the truths hit home one after another. Regardless of being adapted from a story written over a hundred years ago, Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis is a cry for how we live now. It’s so relevant to the cost of living crisis, to crumbling masculinity, to the fallibility of authority, and to awareness surrounding trauma. It explores mental health issues, taking us to the precipice. Not only is it bursting with substance, but it’s beautiful. It has a stunning soundscape of guttural wails and chittering bugs begging for survival.
This production asks some of the most pressing questions of our age about responsibility, accountability, and obligation. What do we inherit? How much must we give back? How do we clean up after the mess is made? Who picks up the tab? It explores disgust, guilt, shame, and our relationship to nature… the nature that resides within us all.
For a sublime, intense theatrical experience that plays with shadows, with beauty and the barren, poetry and the profound, look no further than Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis.