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Review – Metamorphosis – Frantic Assembly at the Playhouse, Liverpool

PRESENTING novels as dramatic works can be a tricky business, especially when they contain elements of the surreal or require substantial imagination on the part of the reader. Kafka’s 1915 novella Metamorphosis therefore has defied numerous attempts at successful adaptation for the stage and screen.

To begin with, the German term ‘ungerhueres ungeziefer’ (literally translating as ‘monstrous vermin’) has proved problematic to interpret effectively when taken in context with the descriptions of the creature which the protagonist Gregor Samsa transforms into. Vermin means different things to different people. Also, the narrative is equally troublesome when it comes to looking for meaning in both Gregor’s transformation and the reaction of his boss, his family and their lodger. Each reader will have formed ideas that will frequently be at odds with any physical realisation of the story.

Fortunately though, we are in luck, with the immense skill of Frantic Assembly to bring it to the stage here in an adaptation by the celebrated poet Lemn Sissay. The Assembly are past masters at using movement to say what words cannot, and here their physical theatre is complemented by the musicality of Sissay’s dialogue.

This dialogue is one of the production’s strengths, bringing a lyricism to the stark nightmarish visual world we are watching, whilst at times also being its key weakness, insofar as it has any, in that at times the insistent repetitions of phrases can act as a distraction.

Theatre almost verges on modern dance as the uniformly outstanding cast weave about one another in a mesmeric physical performance. They are very much individuals but sometimes act as a single entity, both attracted and repelled by each other like sub-atomic particles.

In Jon Bausor’s set, Gregor’s room is a claustrophobic box suspended in space in the centre of a darkened stage. Its distressed surfaces and distorted perspectives provide an unsettling setting, and as the play progresses the floor turns almost imperceptibly from side to side and the ceiling sways vertiginously, with the walls twisting and stretching in Dali-esque animation.

It is a stroke of genius to provide no outward manifestation of Gregor’s transformation in the way of makeup or costume. Instead, we rely entirely on the skill of Felipe Pacheco’s movement. An extraordinary actor, he performs seemingly impossible feats whereby we see him climbing the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Opposite him is Hannah Sinclair Robinson as his sister Grete, and in this take on the story there is a clear indication of an emotional bond between them that goes beyond that of brother and sister, barely hinted at in the source text.

But these are just two out of five exceptionally strong performances which, under the direction of Scott Graham, do a remarkably successful job of lifting Kafka’s text from the page to the stage, casting sufficient light on the story to make it lucid while leaving enough of it in the shadows to allow us our own interpretation of its meanings.

Following a week in Liverpool, Metamorphosis continues its journey on tour, with dates booking through to January.

Star rating: 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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