As the audience shuffle in to Metamorphosis at the Tristan Bates Theatre, extracting themselves from coats and squeezing into seats, they are also aware of another, rather more choreographed, movement taking place. To the low thump of base, confined to the corner of the stage, an ensemble repeat the same sharp movements, trance-like. Collide Theatre’s dance-theatre adaptation of Kafka’s novella is billed as being a ‘piece about the need to be accepted for who you are’ – even if that is a man-sized cockroach.
The show weaves movement and storytelling moments together seamlessly and, to begin with, at a blistering pace. Storytelling moments are initially brought to us by a static line of actors, each stepping forward to give fresh news and detail – this contrasts neatly with a progression which relies on (increasingly) frenetic movement. Interestingly, the newly transformed Gregor is the only unseen character; instead voiced in unison by the company. This is effective. Not only do we experience Gregor solely through others’ reactions to him, but also makes an interesting comment on how we tell the stories of the marginalised. The result is quite captivating, leaving the visual detail to the imagination, but placing the characters’ relationships centre-stage. The story is carried effortlessly by a nuanced group, and touches of humour give the audience room to breathe at the outset.
The narrative is punctuated by periods of movement, as Gregor’s family struggle to continue through mundane domestic rituals. This is set to entrancing, evocative violin music which both blends into the action and is a highlight of its own (superb work from composer David Denyer). Actions from the pre-set echo through these sections, tying the work together. As the story progresses, and the family relationship degrades, so too does the family’s behaviour. The violin discordant, movement becomes increasingly frantic and out of place, as if they no longer know how to behave; a drink is poured into an upside-down glass, a brush swept through mid-air. These scenes are intense and superbly executed by an ensemble who are both committed and in-tune. And their repetition forces me to grapple with what to draw from them. It seems to highlight the pointless futility of human action, or is it simply expressing how difficult it is for Gregor to perform these once simple tasks, how difficult it is to fit in with human normality when you’re different? Regardless, it’s certainly provocative, engaging theatre.
This staging of Metamorphosis is starkly original (I loved the minimalist set which was boldly ripped up in the latter half of the play) and works as a moving piece of storytelling. I wonder, however, to what extent it lives up to its promise of addressing the need to be accepted in a modern context. When the tenants are introduced, for instance, it feels as if Kafka’s work is getting in the way of the point trying to be made here – and these moments held me the least. Had the production stuck less tightly to the plot I feel there may have been scope to explore themes of identity, of rejection, even further.
Metamorphosis ran at the Tristan Bates Theatre from the 21st-27th April
Images: Yiannis Katsaris