3 stars out of 5
Metamorphosis review — Frantic Assembly and Lemn Sissay set Kafka’s story in the cost of living crisis
Plymouth Theatre Royal
In this physically ingenious, nightmarish adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa does not wake up as an insect — we watch, instead, as he slowly becomes one, dehumanised by the demands of his job as a travelling salesman. On a set where the walls tilt inwards with expressionist menace, the production’s first visual coup is to make Gregor appear from nowhere: one moment we see an empty bed, the next he’s materialised there as if from the shadows.
The theatre company Frantic Assembly has been rewriting the rulebook for almost three decades now; its rigorous physical exploration of emotion combined with edgy pulsing soundtracks has won an ardent following. Here the company has collaborated with the poet Lemn Sissay to rewrite Kafka’s meticulously observed fable of alienation so that it becomes a stark reflection of our cost of living crisis, a portrait of a man hollowed out by overwork and debt.
While Tory politicians may not be lining up to see this, the production balances beauty with grit and is spiked with arresting visual effects. At one point Gregor appears to be quite literally vomiting up the fabric he has to sell. At another point — when we’re bracing ourselves to see the insect emerge from his bed — the cover pulls back to reveal his sister Grete (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) instead.
Certain scholars, lunging for originality, have claimed the work’s really about Grete; here Sissay’s script introduces a more contentious twist as romantic tensions develop between Grete and Gregor that contribute to his expulsion from the family. Though as the production develops we realise that Gregor is adopted (Grete is not), a factor that may remove the taboo but here tragically underpins the family’s determination to reject him.
The Brazilian-British actor Felipe Pacheco is a wiry, scuttling presence as Gregor; wisely he’s never forced to go full exoskeleton, but through body language alone he deftly demonstrates how stress strips him of his humanity. At one point he’s literally dangling from the ceiling, at another he’s huddled on a swinging light suspended by a cord, as Simisola Majekodunmi’s eery lighting design makes his shadow on the wall flutter like a trapped moth.
Yet despite a whole butterfly house of striking elements in Scott Graham’s production they don’t always come together convincingly. At times Sissay’s script erupts into intense poetic brilliance but at other points it’s too fragmented and abstract, sapping the dramatic tension.
Besides Pacheco, Jon Bausor’s Nosferatu-worthy set is the production’s star, animated by Ian William Galloway’s hallucinatory, introspective video design. Ultimately, however, this is more interesting specimen than diverting new species.