Coventry Belgrade


Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka's novella (prolonged short story) published in 1915, about a man who wakes up one morning to discover he has turned into a huge indeterminate insect (some say 'cockroach, or 'vermin'), is not just a classic of already excellence-packed Czech literature (much of it in the late 19th century by superlative women writers, dramatists and librettists), but one of the gems of all mainland Europe's output as well.

It has occasioned a lot of debate, about the meaning of the tale, and regarding Kafka's purpose in writing it. Of course, insects would play another notable place in Czech writing, thanks to the fame of The Insect Play (1921-2), written by two playwright brothers, Karel and Josef Čapek; and also several fanciful late 19th and turn-of-the 20th century operas.

If one may begin with a (seeming) criticism, it is that in Lemn Sissay's adaptation and the vivacious touring production by the lively company Frantic Assembly (there is another recent version by, for example, Yasmina Reza, and others preceded both), Gregor Samsa's plight (the wonderful, ever-imaginative Felipe Pacheco - sharing that name with Brazil's greatest sculptress) does not appall him, and keep him bed-bound, from the very outset. Instead the change - albeit brilliant (a truly ingenious idea) - takes place in the second half, immediately after the interval.

A lot of possibilities, and much significant detail, are thus lost. Yet what is so right are the indications that Gregor has come to terms with (given in to?) his dismal new state. A sociopolitical element may surface here: give in your situation, exactly as those under a Fascist or Communist dictatorship do - though remember that these (even Soviet Communism) were still in the, albeit near, future).

The play - the company's first fresh commission since 2019 - is performed by and at a colloquy of venues, not least (a frequent priority) to help offset the not inconsiderable costs. The publicity applauds "the fluidity and lyricism" of Lemn Sissay’s adaptation - I think that is wholly justified, it is indeed enchanting - and the company's "uncompromising physicality" (very cleverly evident at intermittent points).

How far it proves "a shocking tale of cruelty and kindness; a visceral and vital depiction of humans struggling within a system that crushes them under its heel", is moot. The domestic aspect was very finely presented by all four (in fact five) characters. The wider political, social and oppression elements in Artistic Director and co-founder Scott Graham's staging (and the libretto) are touched on, but tentatively.  

Pacheco's versatile, elastic Samsa much of the time approaches brilliance. But Frantic Assembly has deployed a delicious and hugely able team: in sum, Louise Mai Newberry (as the understandably distraught, vexed though sympathetic Mother); Hannah Sinclair Robinson (who plays the sister: brother and sister are - it is clear from the start - close; advantageous when the bizarre transmogrifying occurs and she takes charge); Troy Glasgow as the more severe, troubled, judgmental father. Plus the lesser role of a Lodger (Joe Layton).

The joy was this cast - Frantic Assembly's vaunted physicality really did come alive in some of the deliciously, purportedly chaotic, interchanges: racing around and intertwining with phenomenal carefully choreographed dexterity. Whether a human or an amazingly clambering insect, Pacheco has the main task, the mountain to climb (what's more, as a salesman his forlorn family totally depends on him for its income), and his immensely talented response to everything Scott Graham, in his frankly superb production, demands of him, supplied the undoubted, constant, ultra-reliable lead.

But this skillfully conceived presentation gained marvelously from all three of the other main figures: merely Gregor's family - one might almost think this simplistic, but it isn't. True, lack of even cast lists and a complete absence of mention of creatives on the Belgrade's website was a drawback (although they' re on FA's - see HERE for their range of other productions: a recent Othello, for instance, or Graham's own Stockholm, or his co-written Fatherland, or their marvellous handling some years back (and revived) of the multi-award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, who also, irrelevantly, went to the same school as me), occasioned a hectic pursuit of the needed information. I must admit omissions like this left me frantic myself.

Robinson's sister created a character so well-defined at the outset that she never lost momentum. Her allegiance to Gregor was total; in this she contrasted with his (and her) parents, whose response to this crisis was more mixed. All three performed (deliberately?) comic exits along the front walkway, made possible by Frantic Assembly's cracking Designer Jon Bausor, compacting Gregor's bedroom into a restricted, sultry, suffocating frame - its cramped design and decor perfectly suggesting the oppression that permeates Kafka's original story.

But his most spectacular invention - if it was he - was the clutter of chairs (terrifically juggled and manipulated by Pacheco) with which - absolutely no monstrous, multilegged weevil or mantis or aphid here - Gregor's transformation is evoked. What a clever idea it proved. If set and props matter, Bausor's whole approach felt exemplary; and they provide a context for his final family rejection and death from starvation.

Newberry, as the nervously concernedly fretful (and utterly puzzled) though still empathetic Mother, made up the cast by creating an insightful, intuitive, even perceptive figure. But it was Troy Glasgow who contrived perhaps the most truly outstanding passages in the whole play, when he embarked on a long soliloquy that was nothing short of a masterpiece: the pace, and the intensity, effortlessly (or effortfully) sustained throughout.

It might have unbalanced the structure. But no worry. Variety, forcefulness, gripping moods, anger, anguish. Glasgow struck me a superb performer in every way, a very strong presence, an enviable, massively impressive voice and delivery. In short, in marginally brutal Kafka, verging on genius.  

Roderic Dunnett


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