Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Splendid Productions/Kerry Frampton), The Lowry, 16 November 2017.
Nobody is sure whether the performance has started. The house lights are still on. There is generic light jazz muzak playing through the sound system at a tasteful volume. The three actors, if they are the actors, are waving and pointing at the audience making quizzical or funny faces and geekily taking notes in small notebooks, ticking off unknown criteria. Now they wander into the audience shaking hands, hi-fiving, conversing. Or they approach the single microphone on stage, marked with a hand-written cardboard sign saying ‘microphone’ in felt tip.
Everything on stage, pretty much, has its own similar sign. Props that are just boxes are labeled as ‘Props’, ‘Story’, and there is a crude model building emblazoned with ‘Samsa’. It’s unclear if this is some sort of gesture towards semiotics and semiology, but the connection crosses the mind, especially when considering this play’s subject matter, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (Die Wervandlung) and their emphasis at the start on the dictionary definition of that word.
After what is referred to as an ‘Am I Normal? Interlude’ where the actors each ask the audience a random question, pulled from a small box containing many more, to ascertain how normal they are, before bringing up audience members to ask more, the play, presumably, begins. This is made somewhat clear when the recognisable opening lines of Kafka’s novel are read out in a not particularly serious tone and a long banner with ‘Metamorphosis’ written across it is unfurled.
Brown and beige are the preferred colour scheme here; from the costumes to the props it’s all quite drab. Perhaps this is designed to emphasise the Samsa family’s life of dull routine and repetitive servitude in middling level work. Despite this basic set-up the production’s inventive and immersive approach ensures that many aspects of Kafka’s story are imparted during the short one-hour duration of the play, although this demands some imagining from the audience. Most of the stage is put to good, clever use. The sheet hanging at the back is pulled out and taught to become a table. Rope is used to form doorways and a sash window. Countering this there are also moments of vivid colour when the actors throw multi-coloured fake money around to demonstrate the reliance of the Samsa family on Gregor’s wages, their relative financial elevation and their later diminished circumstances after his transformation and the loss of his job.
Other instances of this kind of spelled out demonstration occur. There is a tendency throughout the play for the actors to simplistically and one-dimensionally describe or narrate each characters’ feelings or status in extremely obvious ways which intrudes on and interrupts the entertaining sequences delineating Kafka’s absurdist narrative. This kind of explaining doesn’t truly capture the fundamental complexities of the world and the people who inhabit it that the author builds, a world of both banal normality and the concern-inducing aberrant. Maybe this is simply successful use of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt in the creation of a purposeful barrier between fictional source material, performance and audience. Undoubtedly the Brechtian influence is felt with fragmentation, interruption and the way the house lights stay on for the whole duration of the play. Dimming of the lights is in itself a huge part of the experience of ‘normal’ theatre.
There is some terrific physical acting throughout the play from all three actors. Their versatility and fluidity is impressive and the comedic set pieces and sequences of singing that the adaptation relies upon are fluid and tight. When Gregor’s father for instance finally flips, tires of his son’s and his own failure to process what has happened and fatally throws a few apples at Gregor the actors use a great slow-motion effect and the power of the moment is keenly felt. Scott Smith is particularly good in all the roles he takes on, freakishly stomping around, ape like as the father and wonderfully outlandish as the cockney accented charwoman. There is a sympathetic or empathetic involvement with Kafka’s story here through the production’s choppiness and the disjointed, interrupted approach. The actors also become objects found around the Samsa house, a portrait of a beautiful woman, an alarm clock, a wardrobe. The effect is like a comedy sketch show dumped in the middle of a theatrical adaptation. The actors work interchangeably throughout sharing some roles in the Samsa family, notably Gregor and the father. When the family takes in three bearded lodgers the actors make the universal symbol for beards with their hands and strike haughty poses. This is very effective use of mime, gesture and suggestion, techniques that are fundamental to the performance.
Circling back to tonight’s audience, it is comprised of what feels like the majority of Manchester’s GCSE and AS Level students who have been streaming into the Lowry from a succession of coaches and mini buses parked up, motors trundling, outside opposite the outlet mall. Kerry Frampton’s version of Metamorphosis, from its deliberately disruptive pre-amble to its conclusion, is designed for these secondary school age groups. Take the ‘Am I Normal’ questions: ‘I really like the smell of my own farts…No. I really like the smell of my own farts. Am I normal?’ or ‘I have to compulsively eat every sweet of the same colour from a packet together…Am I normal?’ These are indicative of the fact that Splendid Productions’ modus operandi is to create theatre for and to engage young people: ‘We create challenging, vibrant theatre for young people, and we provide expert training in all areas of drama from Practitioner theory to Presentation skills.’
Founded in 2003 the company annually adapts a classic play and tours the country’s schools, colleges and evidently some theatres to both educate and entertain. Part of the point of the show is to highlight techniques for English and drama students such as Brechtian episodic structure, physical storytelling, choral precision, breaking the fourth wall, exaggerated characterisation, music, mime and puppetry. These feel slightly forced and unnatural at times in the larger dramatic sense, but that is part of the point of the exercise and should be born in mind, and the company deserve recognition for their efforts to elucidate such things in inspiring new generations into the theatrical arts. The attendant kids are clearly and eagerly engaged with this, shouting out answers to those questions and noisily reacting to events on stage.
Like the stage set, Kafka now also has his own well-known piece of linguistic signage; many people, knowingly or unknowingly will use the adjective Kafka-esque to explain or describe something, a life situation, an occurrence, a work of art. Splendid’s adaptation of the novel knowingly plays on this thoroughly utilising the above techniques; the actors in bouts of mock pretence all overly articulate the words in a sort of whisper. ‘Oooh Kafkaaa. Oooh’, ‘Metamooorphosis’. It’s ridiculous, a little bit derisive, very funny in places and obviously appeals to the age group. The emphasis is strongly on comedy and humour throughout the performance.
This is problematic however. Metamorphosis, while certainly amusing at times, by way of darkly absurd comedy, is also horrific, grotesque and melancholic. This side of Kafka’s writing isn’t really evident enough in the play, weighted as it is more towards lightness and humour. There are isolated things, or sequences, that touch on Kafka’s disquiet and the tragedy, or tragic-comedy of the Samsa family. The insect noises that the actors make into the microphone using an effects pedal are quite disturbing and a poignant soliloquy is given to Gregor which details ironically, how human he feels now after the change and as a result of his insectoid captivity. This is recited over a plaintive pre-recorded violin solo. To symbolize Gregor’s new form the actor in the role wears a large paper bag over their head with what I guess we now refer to as ‘sad face’ or ‘sad emoji’ holes cut into it. This speech is genuinely moving, pitiable and haunting, and the bag over the head, which all the actors wear at several points in the guise of all the family, turns from something trite to a more genuine visual emblem of loneliness, distress and marginality.
These issues aside, the troupe do a lot with very little which in many ways suits the brevity of Kafka’s text and its spare style. It’s an abbreviated, more focused telling of the story than the original that zeroes in on the central figure of Gregor in his crisis moment. Doing so some key episodes are left out or glossed over, the full details around Gregor’s death for example, and the small but telling section right at the end of the work with the Samsas on the tram to the countryside so easily forgetting what has happened in their home. The way that Splendid’s efforts adeptly zoom in and out on each character and the wider events, their energy, infectious spirit and mobility are admirable though.