Sydney audiences got their first look at this adaptation of Franz Kafka’s story in 2009 when Icelandic company Vesturport Theater brought its gravity-defying production to the Roslyn Packer.
It was a memorable staging, based on a split-level set and aerial tricks that made it look like Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s salesman-turned-insect, was scuttling across the walls and ceiling.
Showstopping effects of that kind are beyond the budget of Sydney independent company Clock & Spiel, but this Metamorphosis holds your attention solidly, even without the bells and whistles.
A set of gauzy walls (designed by Lucy McCullough and suggestive of an insect cocoon) stands for the Samsa apartment, home to a ruined businessman (played by Yannick Lawry), his asthmatic wife (Hailey McQueen), their musically talented daughter Grete (Madeleine Miller), and son Gregor (Sam Glissan), a hardworking schlub who, as you probably know, awakes one morning to find himself transformed into “horrible vermin” / “a giant insect” (depending on the translation).
Up until this point, the Samsa household has been a model of drab respectability and middle class values. But with Gregor now repulsive and economically redundant (his wages have been propping up the family budget for some time), such things quickly fall by the wayside.
The setting isn’t made explicit, but Gisli Örn Gardarsson and David Farr’s adaptation draws on the early Nazi period for its background. Father gets a job as a uniformed bank guard and loves the petty power that comes with it, shouting at one point, “work makes us free!”
Later on, confronted by the otherness of Gregor, would-be lodger Herr Fischer (Julian Lawrence) darkly warns the family that “the time will come when we will clear the vermin from our society”. Nobody is striding around in swastika armbands but you’d be hard-pressed to miss the analogies.
Amanda Stephens-Lee directs this shoestring-budgeted production efficiently and draws out good performances from her actors.
Victoria Greiner is under-utilised, with only one scene as Gregor’s boss (could she have doubled as Fischer?). That said, Lawrence shines as the sneering lodger who assumes Grete will be included in his boarding arrangements. Lawry is suitably pompous as Father and McQueen finds comic notes in her portrayal of Mother. Miller develops a convincing carapace of inhumanity as Grete goes through a transformation of her own and comes to resent Gregor’s demands.
The Vestuport production maintained a Gregor who looked completely normal but did unsettlingly inhuman things. This version has it the other way around, with Glissan kitted out in pyjamas and a sculpted wire helmet complete with bug antennae. I spent the first 10 minutes of the show thinking it was unnecessary but like much about this show, it grows on you, and Glissan – an actor cut from unconventional cloth – makes it work well.
This Metamorphosis doesn’t feel as pertinent as it did in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (viewing Gregor’s otherness and his family’s reaction through the lens of gender would be more current) but even so, this is involving storytelling from a company that has developed a solid reputation for period-set work (Freud’s Last Session; The Screwtape Letters) and is well worth your time.