Lemn Sissay, after Franz Kafka
Frantic Assembly, with Theatre Royal Plymouth, Curve, Mast Mayflower Studios and Lyric Hammersmith
The Lowry, Salford
November 11 - 15, 2023: 2 hrs 30 mins
The first big surprise in Frantic Assembly’s version of Kafka’s novella is that it does not open with Gregor Samsa (Felipe Pacheco) awaking to find himself turned into a gigantic bug, as per the first sentence of the book. It takes until we’re about an hour into the play, and nearing the interval break, for that to happen.
So you can see that Lemn Sissay’s drama is far from being a simple transliteration of the story. And there are those who say that the key to the whole thing is that you don’t take that first sentence literally, anyway. What we do see is Grete (Gregor’s younger sister, played by Hannah Sinclair Robinson) waking from sleep: maybe she’s really the one who’s changed?
Is Metamorphosis all about the Samsa family – father (Troy Glasgow), mother (Louise Mai Newberry) and Grete – and how they treat the family’s sole breadwinner when he has to opt out of his travelling salesman livelihood (or is he forced to do so by them, really)? The unfolding exposition of the first act gives them plenty of time to express their thoughts about him, and him to show us what his daily treadmill is like. And Mr and Mrs Samsa each have their long soliloquies in the second half (making up for Gregor and Grete’s dominance of the first) to show their inner feelings.
Long before the transformation happens, Grete talks about her enforced learning of the violin as being like a blood-sucking insect on her neck, and when the still-human Gregor first hugged her like a vampire the mainly teenage audience in the Quays Theatre was in no doubt that this was a crucial bit of naughty.
Or is this a social commentary we see before us? Lemn Sissay uses a number of familiar, near-proverbial, phrases – “a man is what a man does”, “money talks”, and so on, particularly “beggars can’t be choosers” – to highlight the assumptions of a western capitalist society, where jobs can be instantly lost if you don’t produce results and it’s devil take the financial hindmost. Maybe that was more starkly true in Kafka’s own time, but we hear similar things often enough now.
The chief clerk of Gregor’s company (Joe Layton) keeps appearing from the shadows like an unearthly inspector to deliver notice of impending doom, and later there’s a landlord figure, also played by Joe Layton (Sissay’s gloss on the original story), who threatens the family with eviction as their money runs out.
This may be the main theme director Scott Graham had in mind: the company’s blurb says the play’s “a visceral and vital depiction of humans struggling within a system that crushes them under its heel”. But there’s much more to it than that, and I wouldn’t say it was blind to the many other implications of the tale.
It’s a skilled and powerful piece of writing in its own right, and Frantic Assembly lives up to its reputation with a production that catches attention and holds it – well delivered and pretty physical, particularly on the part of Felipe Pacheco, who hangs from the lamp cable and literally crawls up the walls of the single, evocative set (his bedroom in missing-fourth-wall configuration, and a slightly lower open space at the front for everything else to happen), by Jon Bausor. There’s a pounding, rhythmic accompaniment to much of the story (composer Stefan Janik, sound designer Helen Skiera) that builds and sustains tension highly effectively.
More info and tickets here