"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect..."
In 2019, when actor, writer and director Fraser Ayres suggested to Scott Graham, the artistic director of Frantic Assembly, that he might like to stage a version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, his initial response was a resounding “No”.
“Why would I want to go anywhere near it? It comes with so much baggage and so much expectation,” he says.
He's right. Everyone thinks they know Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, which tells of Gregor Samsa, a weary travelling salesman and sole breadwinner in his debt-ridden family, who wakes up one morning to find he has been turned into a giant beetle. Confined to his room, Gregor becomes completely reliant on the family that once relied on him.
It’s been described as the best horror story ever written, and its influence can be found in popular culture from video games to the Rolling Stones’ 1975 album, Metamorphosis, which features the band members heads replaced by bug heads. There have been movies, operas and theatre productions inspired by the story, including Steven Berkoff’s famed 1969 physical theatre show.
But after discussing it with Ayres – whose personal reaction suggested a powerful story much less about transformation and more about the power of perception – Graham found it stayed with him like an itch that had to be scratched. This autumn, Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis sets out on a six-month tour. Why the change of heart?
“It’s a story written with such restraint, and it contains so much fear and cruelty. I couldn’t get it out of my head," said Graham. "It was written over a 100 years ago, but it feels so timely, so now."
Teaming up with the BAFTA-nominated poet, broadcaster and author Lemn Sissay, who has written the script, Graham and his team has reimagining Kafka’s story on stage as a tale of a family under pressure, crushed by external economic forces, who end up crushing each other.
“Gregor is the breadwinner and the family members are like parasites on him," said Graham. "When he transforms, he's less valuable to them and becomes a burden. We see what happens.”
Lemn Sissay describes it as “a story about a family with a big secret locked in one of its rooms." The change that happens to Gregor, he says, exposes the flaws and insecurities that already exist in the family. "There are so many different tensions long before Gregor wakes up as a bug,”
Sissay argues that everything in his script can be found in Kafka’s story: “It’s all there, I haven’t invented.
I wouldn’t dream of trying to rewrite such a brilliant text.”
Academics have long argued over whether Gregor’s metamorphosis is actual or metaphorical, but Graham suggests it can be both – particularly on stage, where the audience has a different relationship to the material than the reader. He reckons that if you look very closely at the story, what happens to Gregor might be seen as a mental health crisis.
Long before Sissay began writing the script, the company – admired for its physically dynamic and emotionally truthful shows, including a recent version of Othello – was already exploring elements of the text, particularly the fear inherent within it.
“I don’t think what happens to Gregor is a supernatural event. I think it’s a result of stress. The Samsa family is drowning in debt, because of the father’s bankruptcy. Like Gregor, the father has had a moment of transformation when he has gone from breadwinner to burden,” observes Graham.
“Gregor is desperate to get the family out of debt; he is aspiring to something else, particularly for his sister, Grete, who plays the violin and who he hopes can take it further.
"One of the elements of the story is about what people from different backgrounds can aspire to, and that feels really timely because of the articulation of the idea that people from backgrounds like Grete’s can’t play the violin or shouldn’t aspire to a career in the arts.”
Metamorphosis is a story that comes with such a memorable and killer opening line that those who read it never forget it (that's it at the top of this text).
“It's complete genius,” agrees Graham, but he also wonders whether it might be a red herring that immediately makes everyone think the title refers to Gregor alone. Sissay agrees. “I think the metamorphosis that takes place is as much about Grete as it is about Gregor. She is the person in the story who experiences great change of many different kinds. She is in the process of becoming a woman. "It’s all there in the text, and once you see it you can’t unsee it. It is so clear.” Young Grete is the member of the family closest to Gregor: when he becomes a bug, her parents recoil but she takes on the task of taking him food.
“Feeding somebody is an extraordinary act of intimacy,” says Graham, who suggests there are tensions and ambiguities in Gregor and Grete’s relationship, as there are within the whole family. Those tensions will finally detonate in unexpected ways, with far-reaching consequences.
“This is a story of a family under stress, from without and within,” says Graham. “It looks like a normal family and operates like a normal family, but there are hidden weaknesses. When the cracks begin to appear, the structure cannot hold. It’s a tragedy.”
The show's only northern date is at The Lowry, Salford, November 14-18. More info and tickets here