The image most commonly associated with Franz Kafka’s most famous work, the 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, is that of a giant insect trapped inside a bare, dirty room with a rotting apple lodged in his back—the bug was formerly a man named Gregor Samsa, and the room was formerly his bedroom. As we all know, this distressing and inexplicable transformation from man to bug happened in an instant, although its emotional and literary after-effects have been haunting English students ever since.
The stage adaptation of The Metamorphosis by the Icelandic company Vesturport Theatre and London’s Lyric Hammersmith, on now at the Royal Alexandra Theatre with Mirvish Productions, is much more watchable than this introduction would suggest. The only bug you’ll see in this version is a trick of light and shadow. And that’s not the only trick up this show’s sleeve (or perhaps antenna?).
The first level of Borkur Jonsson’s set is a middle-class living room—tidy, humble, pleasantly cluttered. In the opening sequence, a father, wife, and daughter contentedly go about their morning routines. Then, however, the focus shifts upstairs to the second level, where reality has been turned upside down. The perspective switches to a bird’s-eye view of the bedroom: a bed stands vertically, while a lamp and chair stick out horizontally from the wall. Gregor (Björn Thors) emerges from under the bed dressed in his usual suit and tie and speaks in English, but his family is horrified by the sight of him and can’t understand the noises he makes. Thors then begins climbing, swinging, and hanging all over the walls—and we understand the transformation has taken place.
The story that follows is familiar: Gregor’s sister Grete (Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir) feeds him, while their parents recover from the shock and the loss of income from Gregor’s breadwinning job, until the reality of living with a son-turned-horrifyingly-enormous-cockroach starts to overwhelm the family. As the novelty of Thors’s physicality and the hidden features of the set begins to wear off, the family’s dynamic holds our attention, thanks to fine performances by Ösp Stefánsdóttir and supporting players Tom Mannion, Edda Arnljótsdóttir, and Víkingur Kristajánsson. And though the sadness of Gregor’s story feels slightly watered down by the visually arresting elements, a soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis makes the show as enticing to the ears as it is to the eyes.
If nothing else, this stage adaptation of The Metamorphosis proves how timeless Kafka’s story is, and how universal the truths behind its absurdity.