Metamorphosis and A Night in the Arms of Kafka: many limbs, much brilliance
By Rosalind Moran
Canberra had not seen a production of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in over 50 years. This month, however, all of that changed.
The Street Theatre has just wrapped up its run of Metamorphosis, an ambitious piece of theatre adapted by Steven Berkoff from Franz Kafka’s novella. Directed by Adam Broinowski, the play succeeded in conveying both the sinister and sardonic qualities of the original text while losing none of its surreal and fable-like qualities, which can be challenging to take from page to stage.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Metamorphosis explores the story of Gregor Samsa, a young man who wakes up one morning to discover he has inexplicably transformed into a gigantic insect.
He can still understand his family when they speak, but they find him unintelligible. Gregor grows increasingly isolated and neglected as he is forced to confront his new identity. His family, meanwhile, must work out how to carry on with their lives despite Gregor’s condition and the fact he can no longer financially support them. Indeed, it is especially interesting to see how their disfigured and incapacitated son first elicits sadness and despair, but gradually becomes a source of resentment and ultimately hatred for them.
The Street Theatre’s production stood out in several ways. The set was distinctive: while the theatre was small, this served to effectively recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of the apartment in which the entire play takes place. Greenish lighting, grungy urban aesthetic, and sound effects that included planes flying and legs pattering served to accentuate the story’s unsettling nature. The actors also excelled in conveying how characters hovered between human and other: those playing Gregor’s family, for example, with doll-like makeup, jerky movements, and frequently blank expressions, suggest that the family is just as inhuman as he is, albeit owing to societal pressures and routine as opposed to surreal horror.
What struck me most about this production, however, was how well it captured the dark, fairytale-esque motifs and tone of the tale. The recurrent use of mime amplifies the question of what is real and what isn’t, and who is doing the pretending. Touches such as having the family ‘prepare breakfast’ for Gregor by tearing apart a raw cabbage and sincerely presenting it to him as different foods in a meal demonstrate the extent to which fantasy pervades the story. A highlight of the piece even has Gregor and his parents imagining Gregor’s sister, Greta, playing the violin in the conservatorium – but the actress is shown playing a xylophone, her audience is facing the wrong way, and the soaring soundtrack to their imaginations abruptly winds down. Through moments such as these, therefore, the audience is repeatedly forced to question what the play is trying to tell them – and the joy of Metamorphosis is that it is so rich a text and a performance, one could interpret it in a myriad of ways.
I particularly enjoyed the evening I saw Metamorphosis on stage not least because the performance was preceded by a related event, also held at The Street Theatre: A Night in the Arms of Kafka. This event, billed as a conversation hour, had local Australian National University lecturer Dr Russell Smith and representatives from the Czech Republic embassy and the German embassy each offer their perspectives on Kafka’s life and work.
Learning more about Kafka’s life and how his writing is perceived academically provided valuable food for thought before watching the play. The Street Theatre also made an inspired decision in inviting along representatives from the two embassies to discuss how Kafka is perceived and received in their countries. Being a Jewish man who spoke German as his mother tongue and was born in Prague, Kafka embodied complex multinational ties, and it was well worth learning more about where he and his works are considered to belong (if anywhere). The audience even learnt that the famous and somewhat nebulous term ‘Kafkaesque’ has different meanings in English and in German; while in English, it is often used to suggest something is surreal, confusing, or nightmarish, in German it means “unfathomably threatening”. How apt!
Metamorphosis may well ruin your sleep patterns and render you inordinately fearful of small insects. It is such a marvellous piece of theatre, however, that it’s worth running these risks and seeing it if you have the chance. Rarely is so much disquiet this thrilling to watch.
Metamorphosis ran from Saturday 17 August to Saturday 31 August 2019 at The Street Theatre, Canberra. Length: 80 minutes including interval.