Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith review: it's a bug's life in Lemn Sissay's meandering take on Kafka

 (Tristram Kenton)
(Tristram Kenton)

Franz Kafka’s nightmare 1915 story of a man transformed into a monstrous bug becomes a tale of outsider-dom and a critique of capitalism in Lemn Sissay’s meandering, semi-poetic adaptation.

It’s co-produced by four theatres and Frantic Assembly, now in its 30th year, and features the touring company’s familiar blend of muscular movement and broad, shouty characterisation.

Scott Graham’s production fosters a potent sense of unease, but the mood is relentless and unvarying from beginning to end. Kudos, though, to the upper body strength of Felipe Pacheco, who brings a tortured, scrabbling physical language to the lead role of Gregor Samsa, at times squatting upside down on the ceiling like a sweaty Spider-Man.

The 76-page Metamorphosis has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

In this 140-minute show the mutation happens just before the interval, with most of the first hour devoted to a preamble. Again and again, fabric salesman Gregor is forced from turbulent sleep by the pressure of supporting his parents and sister and the fear of the chief clerk’s disapproval.

His dominant, unemployed dad (Troy Glasgow) roars; his mum (Louse Mai Newberry) is a bag of twittering, cackling nerves; and his adored sister Grete (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) has a disturbingly intense love-hate relationship with both her violin and her brother. Did the show’s creators misread ‘insect’ as ‘incest’?

 (Tristram Kenton)
(Tristram Kenton)

In fact, a shocking moment of intimacy between the siblings sets up a later revelation about Gregor’s isolation which probably owes more to Sissay’s preoccupations than Kafka’s.

It's all legitimate given the original novella resists concrete interpretation. And I like the fact that Gregor’s change is represented entirely by looming, amorphous back-projections and by Pacheco’s pedaling legs and spasming torso.

Jon Bausor’s warped set, and a menacing soundscape by composer Stefan Janik and audio designer Helen Skiera also do much to foster a queasily oppressive atmosphere.

But my goodness, the ceaseless repetition of choreographic and linguistic passages is wearying, as is the coarseness of the acting and the constant underlining of the way society crushes the poor. “Beggars can’t be choosers!” bellows Gregor’s dad about 57 times in five minutes. “I am a man!” shouts the permanently anguished Gregor, over and over.

The show has been geared towards school students, and the thinking seems to be that only bellowing, extreme physical contortion and sledgehammer emphasis will distract them from their phones.

I admire Sissay hugely but this baggy adaptation doesn’t serve Kafka particularly well, and is itself not well served by Frantic Assembly’s one-style-fits-all approach to staging, which increasingly seems to coarsen everything it touches.

Hammersmith Lyric, to March 2; book tickets here