Metamorphosis @ Lyric Hammersmith, London

cast list
Gsli rn Gardarsson
Nina Dogg Filippusdottir
Ingvar E Sigursson
Kelly Hunter
Jonathan McGuinness

directed by
David Farr & Gsli rn Gardarsson
Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find he had turned into a… If you weren’t previously familiar with Franz Kafka’s writing, you still wouldn’t be able to complete that sentence, even after seeing this new production of his most famous work by the Vesturport Theatre Company. Just exactly what Gregor Samsa has turned into is left to the audience’s imagination – one of many curious decisions in this ambitious but oddly unsatisfying show.

Directed and adapted for the stag by both David Farr, the artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, and Vesturport’s Gsli rn Gardarsson, the production employs many of the physical theatre techniques that this innovative Icelandic company has become renowned for in their idiosyncratic stagings of Woyzeck and Romeo and Juliet.

Having also taken on the role of Gregor, Gardarsson bounces and clambers around the (brilliantly Escher-esque) set, swinging from handhold to handhold and dangling from the light-fittings. It’s a very external performance, the nature of Gregor’s transformation conveyed entirely through movement rather than make-up. Yet when the family remove all the furniture from his room, stripping him of his best means of expression, his anguish is palpable.

Vesturport regular Ingvar E Sigursson conveys the necessary blend of menace and ineffectuality as the bullying Samsa patriarch, a man who coldly disposes of Gregor’s chair at the family dining table when his son’s unfortunate plight becomes apparent. Nina Dogg Filippusdottir is also excellent as Gregor’s sister Grete, a girl who is initially her brother’s only defender but soon grows to share her family’s sense of fear combined with exasperation. Kelly Hunter too is on strong form as Gregor’s mother, a woman who warms up subtly under the flattering attentions of potential tenant Herr Fischer.

The production features new music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (a pair who also supplied the soundtrack for Woyzeck) but their additions only really add anything worthwhile in the opening sequence, where normal life in the Samsa household is depicted in a long, almost wordless, but smoothly choreographed scene.

Elsewhere it feels intrusive, especially in the striking end sequence, which had a few too many visual echoes of Kneehigh’s (admittedly excellent) production of Nights at the Circus – in which Gardarsson also starred – for my liking. The gymnastic brilliance that has become Vesturport’s trademark, only really leaves you breathless the first time you see it. When you know what’s coming, when you actively anticipate a degree of circus-derived spectacle, it loses a lot of its impact.

Despite that, this Metamorphosis contains a lot that is memorable and well-executed, not least the way that Kafka’s 1912 work is a used as a fable and a warning for dark things to come. Unfortunately, given the company’s previous form, I came to this with my expectations sky-high – perhaps then it’s partially my fault that I left disappointed.

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