by Lynn on February 4, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto. Written by Franz Kafka. Adapted and directed by David Farr and Gisli Őrn Gardarsson. Designed by Börkur Jónsson. Lighting by Björn Helgason. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Starring: Edda Arnljótsdótier, Vikingur Kristjánsson, Tom Mannion, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdottir, Björn Thors.

Presented by Mirvish Productions and Vesturport and Lyric Hammersmith Productions. Plays until March 9, 2014.

Usually Gregor Samsa is a conscientious  man of precise habit. He wakes at the same time each day, has breakfast and is out the door to the train station and then to work precisely on time. Except today. Today something is different about him. Overnight Gregor has left his well-ordered life and turned into an insect. His hyper-emotional mother discovers him and is appalled. His father is outraged. His sister, Greta is upset. He speaks to them urgently not to be upset and that everything will be fine, but they don’t understand him. The sound he makes when ‘speaking’ is as ugly to them as the sight of him.

Greta is the one assigned to bring him his food. Eventually she forgets. The family tries to forget he’s upstairs in his room. They turn on him and forget he was their loving son and brother who contributed greatly to the family income, and encouraged Greta to go to the Conservatory to study music.  Now they look at him only as vermin that should be removed from the human race.

This is Franz Kafka being his most metaphoric. How society turns on people if they are different, other, ‘inferior’. One thinks of the Holocaust when one race tried to exterminate another. Or ethnic cleansing; or any war over religious differences. The word ‘vermin’ has been used to describe the undesirable.  No matter if at one time all the participants loved and respected each other. When one of them changes into something not recognizable as ‘normal’ then violence and cruelty towards the ‘other’ is a result. Kafka uses an extreme example—a man turns into an insect over night—but we can all appreciate the point.

This is a co-production between Vesturport, a theatre company from Iceland, and Lyric Hammersmith Productions, the producing arm of the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London, England. Both Gisli Örn Gardarsson of Iceland and David Farr of London adapted Kafka’s novel for the stage and co-directed it.

The style of the production is deliberately declarative; something that might be construed as ‘shouty’ and unlike our natural way of actors speaking their lines. The movement of the characters when we see them initially is formal, almost stiff and with an hauteur, as if these people—the mother, the father and the daughter—are snobs about their position.

The one intentionally acting with any kind of urgency is Björn Thors as Gregor, because he is desperately trying to maintain a normalcy but knowing it’s impossible.  His movements are astonishing in their flow and fearlessness as he swings from handle to handle which are strategically placed around the walls and ceiling. It’s a compelling, impressive performance.

In Börkur Jónsson’s set of the cross section of the main floor we can see the order and simplicity of the lives of that family. Gregor’s room upstairs is different. Jónsson has designed this space as if we are looking down on it as if we are above it. We get a sense of how Gregor’s world is turned upside down and a better look at how he scurries like an insect around it.

We don’t often get a chance to see a classic book like Metamorphosis turned into such a vivid, unsettling, and ultimately accomplished production. The lilting music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, seduce us into the story with its beautiful melodies. Nothing jarring to give it away.

I have been lucky enough to have seen it three times: when it was first done in London in 2006; again in Boston with the same cast last year; and now. Each time the production is more gripping than the next. And the message is chilling. This production is for those up for a challenge; a different kind of theatre; and for those who will probably be debating and discussing it long after they see it.

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