Franz Kafka’s dark, disturbing novella, first published in 1915, has regularly provided fertile ground for theatrical adapters, among them Steven Berkoff, with its resonant central image of a man on life’s relentless treadmill finding himself undergoing a frightening physical transformation that forces him off it.
A scene from Metamorphosis at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London Photo: Eddi/Sam Rosewarne
This haunting, allegorical vision of a travelling salesman’s growing detachment from his family - and, indeed, his own body, as he finds himself turning into a giant insect - is now turned into a bold, vivid and shattering nightmare of theatrical expressionism.
First staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in a co-production with Iceland’s Vesturport in 2006, with the Lyric’s then artistic director David Farr joining forces with Vesturport’s Gisli Orn Gardarsson to adapt and co-direct it, and with the latter also starring as lead character Gregor Samsa, its startling impact is undiminished now. In a physically and psychologically imaginative production, the audience too becomes a fly on the wall, observing the unfolding events as if hovering above the man’s upstairs bedroom, while the rest of the family house is viewed head-on.
This dislocating viewpoint offered by designer Borkur Jonsson enhances Samsa’s - and our - sense of alienation. It also means Gardarsson is constantly suspending himself from the bed and walls, clinging upside down to surfaces that he trampolines to reach, and later falling through the floor. Gardarsson may have bulked up a bit around the middle since he first played the role, but he still has a startling, magnetic physicality, conjuring a series of virtuoso theatrical images as he crawls and prowls around the house.
His performance is also genuinely affecting, with an inexorable sense of accumulating dread pervading the air as Samsa’s family progresses from exploiting him to marginalising and abusing him, and finally forgetting to feed and totally rejecting him. Kelly Hunter and Ingvar E Sigurdsson as his parents, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir as his sister and Jonathan McGuiness - doubling as a visiting official from Samsa’s office and a tenant - lend powerful (lack of) support.
This audacious show remains a serious must-see - utterly sad and unspeakably brilliant.