It’s the stuff of horror. An overworked man wakes up as a bug and that’s it. No happy ending for Gregor. Concluding its nationwide run at the Lyric Hammersmith, Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella Metamorphosis is expanded into an athletic portrayal of capitalistic parasitism by Frantic Assembly’s Artistic Director, Scott Graham.
The playwright, Lemn Sissay’s adaptation of Metamorphosis keeps the core elements of the original story. The bug transformation and themes of familial betrayal after economic failure are clear. A notable change is that the nominal metamorphosis doesn’t appear until the end of Act 1. This is a clever change as it’s quite hard to stage Metamorphosis without the entire story being overshadowed by the big beetle that appears on the first page of the novella. By prolonging the conversion, Sissay allows the audience to fully experience Gregor Samsa’s descent from excitable salesman to man on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Felipe Pacheco shines as Gregor during these moments. Much of the first half is taken up by Felipe moving repeatedly from morning routine to night routine, again and again and again. We feel his horror of his time slipping away and his humanity receding. His five years as a Frantic Assembly practitioner is clear here. He is flung around the stage in an acrobatic manner, which only becomes more apparent once he transforms. His haunting screams fill the theatre as he hangs .The moments where we get to stay with Gregor are the best bits of the play.
Metamorphosis is a visually stunning piece of theatre. Jon Bausor’s set is incredible, and he should be commended for his work. The entire set is a playground for the actors, who contort themselves into beds and armchairs with speed. My mind is still racing at how they were able to achieve this. The set is an off-kilter bedroom with dirty-looking gauze walls. As Felipe swings from the ceiling, the entire bedroom swerves dizzyingly with him. This lends itself well to the more expressionist, unreal horror that appears in the play.
And yet, despite all the dancing and swinging and shouting, Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis is a rather stagnant play. The novella is stretched to a 2 hour run time without much to show for it. The nature of Kafka means that defining why Samsa has turned into a bug defeats a lot of the core absurdity. So, we are left fleshing out the other characters. Padding out the dialogue leads to endless repetitions of already clichéd lines. As enjoyable as the other actors are to watch, their ranting about ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ comes a little late. These characters spent too long as cartoonish figures for any emotional connection in the latter half of the play. When Gregor’s plight is the most interesting, he is nowhere to be found.
It takes a lot to make a play about a man turning into a cockroach boring. Where Frantic Assembly succeeds in the visual and horrific elements of the play, the dialogue falls flat leaving the whole play a tedious mess.