Today, change is often our idea of progress. Or to put it another way, changes are always caught up in, and manipulated by, our ideals of progress. Instead of asking ourselves what we can do, we ask ourselves who we want to become. These desires for metamorphosis chart the course of our lives. Yet, how much are we in control of our changing? Do we always get the changes we want? And, if we don’t control our metamorphoses, who does? These are the questions at the heart of Lemn Sissay’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a prescient take on the story of a travelling salesman turned monstrous vermin.
In 1915, Kafka wrote a letter to his publisher which creates an interesting (and intimidating) problem for anyone hoping to take his story beyond the page. “The insect itself”, he wrote, “must not be illustrated by a drawing. It cannot be shown at all, not even from a distance”. Something essential, it seems, is at risk when the work of imagination is done for us. Kafka’s story acts on us within the (im)possibility of our coming to terms with it, forcing its reader into a fantastic enactment of its uncanny, six-legged beginnings, and then carrying on quite benignly as our internal theatres take on the unsettling atmosphere of the kafkaesque. Our imaginations are never afforded the relaxation of a shared reality, of an image we can all look at and identify, so we are forced to take on the solitude of Gregor Samsa, in all its detachment and absurdity. Change, in Kafka, is something we can never achieve entirely (waking up as an insect can never be the ‘new normal’). Change is not as simple as adopting a new appearance; it is something deeper which involves our history and our inner self.
Aware of these representational pitfalls, the first metamorphosis of the play acted on expectation. From under the bulging bedsheets came not a bug, but Gregor’s sister, Grete. If, in Kafka, change has always already happened, in the first act, change was always desperately wanted. Grete fantasised and dreamt, wrapping herself in her brother’s silks and trying on her adulthood in the mirror. Adulthood, promised agency over identity, a freedom to choose. But was a choice between silks a meaningful freedom? Gregor didn’t seem to think so. Trapped in his role of fabric merchant (ironically, roles are something the characters are insistent on escaping from), the circular rhythms of the first act saw Gregor tormented by a nostalgia for his sister’s hope. He slid into his coat, put on a mask-like smile, and delivered his affirmation, “My name is Mr Samsa and I love silk!” – an identity which had become his oppressor. Again and again, Gregor is choked by lines he doesn’t want to speak, trapped in clothes he doesn’t want to wear and is contorted by choreography imposed upon him – yet he has no other choice. As went the line from his monologue, “a scream needs somewhere to hide”. The author of his first metamorphosis was a necessity.
It was in these monologues that the play crescendoed. As you would expect from Sissay, poetry entered the play at the moments when the characters were left alone to soliloquise. Often a tortured, strained poetry, but poetry nonetheless. Wherever language wasn’t prescribed by habit or convention, it wrestled through rhyme and rhythm to escape into something more authentic. The play was intent on expressing just how much we are created, and controlled, by our language. But authenticity was always a private pursuit, and privacy, a longed for ideal. The end of the first act saw Gregor’s pretence of a career collapse as the chief clerk of his company arrived to see why Gregor missed his train. The anticipated metamorphosis took place in the form of neurosis as Gregor became helpless with confusion and terror as his father and his boss beat his humanity out of him on his bedroom floor.
Aside from the insect trouble, a big problem facing this adaptation was how to keep the audience engaged in a second act where the protagonist is a mute, scuttling neurotic. The answer was to develop the play’s minor characters (mother and father) and add a pretext for the family’s strained dynamics. This was a narrative effort that received mixed reviews (my friend and I were sat amongst several GCSE classes and it was at this point that people began to lose interest). Although deepening the significance of economic repression, debt, and generational poverty, a lot of what was so compelling in the first act, the questions I have so far tried to frame, was left behind. Like the reader of the story, the audience of this play becomes Gregor. Whenever a character talked to him they looked directly at the audience, so we were made to share his pain, and share his transformation. There was a part of me that felt (to put it dramatically) betrayed by the second act shift, in much the same way as Gregor. You could say this is an admirable piece of audience manipulation. But if the cost of that empathy is a distance from the play, it might be worth maintaining the dynamism that set the play up so well to begin with.
As we were walking out of the theatre, my friend gave an interesting comment: “I don’t know why they were taking themselves so seriously”. At the heart of Kafka’s story is a deeply unsettling, deeply human, humour (what else can you do when a bug insists on catching the later train to work but laugh?). And it was this humour that was left behind. If this review at times read academically, it is because the play asks for that kind of engagement. Perhaps the question we can now ask is: What possibilities would open if demands for change were seen to be as absurd as waking up with six legs and then being fired from work?
Metamorphosis, adapted by Lemn Sissay, was performed at the York Theatre Royal on 12 October 2023. Felipe Pacheco played Gregor and Hannah Sinclair Robinson played Grete, with Troy Glasgow and Louise Mai Newbury playing the Father and Mother respectively.