Jonathan McGuinness plays numerous roles in Vesturport’s reinvention of Kafka’s literary masterpiece, Metamorphosis. Complete with gymnastics and a spectacular set, this highly physical adaptation has been playing at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, on its third London outing since the original sell-out tour in 2006. Having reached the end of its run, McGuinness reflects on his experiences of both the play and working with the Icelandic company Vesturport.
Metamorphosis itself begins with Gregor Samsa waking to find himself transformed into an unspecified type of creature. His family are, understandably, horrified. But for McGuinness, it wasn’t the story alone that drew him to this production: “Initially what excited me was the opportunity to be working with Vestuport: learning about the way they work, rather than the specific roles,” he explains. “When I first met them, the script wasn’t even finalised. I knew what the parts were, but these parts changed quite a lot during rehearsals.”
Companies wishing to stage adaptations of Kafka’s German novels generally use English translations of the original text, or do their own interpretation of the German text. “David and Gisli [Farr and Örn Gardarsson, the directors] essentially worked from English translations, however they did look at the opening lines quite a lot.” These “opening lines” have caused debate amongst numerous translators and today there are still two different versions of these lines. The first states: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”. However, the term “monstrous vermin” becomes “gigantic insect” in the other most common version, as translators dispute which is closer to Kafka’s German term, “verwandelt”. Because of the difficulty of this translation, McGuinness explains that “[Vesturport] didn’t want to specify what the creature Gregor transforms into was. We had quite a lot of debate about how to stage this, wondering whether we would have some sort of costume to represent his transformation, for example. In the end, we settled on not doing any of that, instead, leaving it to the audience’s imagination.”
Although the book is called Metamorphosis, McGuinness points out that Gregor has transformed before the play actually begins. “What you see in the play and what you read in the book is actually the metamorphosis of everyone else around him – how they react to his changing. So we thought that to have a big, buggy costume would just look a bit ridiculous in the end.” I suggest that with Gregor’s movements, jumps and swings across the walls appearing so uncannily insect-esque, a costume hardly seems needed somehow. “We decided it was better for him to dress normally whilst everyone else reacts as if he has changed into something repulsive,” McGuinness agrees.
With regards to other decisions of what to use from the novel, McGuinness recalls, “From the English translation we came up with a storyboard of scenes that they wanted in the play, then wrote the scenes up and chopped and changed those quite a lot in rehearsals, playing around with the order they came in, so it became its own thing once we were in rehearsals… They amalgamated some moments in the book and added a couple of scenes that aren’t in the book. For example, there’s a scene where all the family have dinner together, which isn’t in the book but it seemed to be the only way we could get everyone to interact together in one moment.”
Vesturport are no strangers to staging physical theatre, and perhaps it’s therefore not surprising they chose to create their own reinvention of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as opposed to staging Steven Berkoff’s adaptation. “Gisli, the Artistic Director, had represented Iceland as a gymnast when he was young, so the physical nature of the play, the circus style and aerial work, were key to his vision,” explains McGuinness. “David Farr, who was then the Artistic Director at The Lyric, wanted to work with Gisli and he suggested Metamorphosis, which Gisli liked the idea of, so they settled on it.” Vesturport’s artistic vision and set design are original, too. “Gisli’s initial ideas for how to stage the play was formed around his vision of the set – one room on top of another, with the top room flipped 90 degrees, so that the furniture appears to be on the wall – was one of the primary ideas. The other artistic decisions were formed around that.”
Metamorphosis was originally published in 1915, and so it would have been understandable for Vesturport to have chosen to highlight different elements of the story, to make it accessible and enjoyable for a modern day audience. However, McGuinness insists, “Metamorphosis is a classic novel in that it’s open to your own interpretation, and anyone who has felt like a bit of an outsider at some point in their lives, or a bit misunderstood or ignored, can relate to it”. Recalling the first read-through, he tells me: “I was amazed to find it had been published in 1915. It’s a really old piece and yet it still feels quite modern.” For McGuinness and many others, Metamorphosis has a timeless quality. “What I find interesting when we talk to audiences is that a lot of teenagers in young audiences relate to it, because essentially, Metamorphosis depicts the story of a young guy, in his bedroom, going through changes whilst no-one understands him.” Likening the play to “an average teenager’s story”, McGuinness describes the “lack of communication” Gregor has with his family and others around him, as a process common to many teenagers.
In terms of style, McGuinness explains that, after lengthy discussions in rehearsals, Vesturport chose to use a slightly heightened Gothic style for their production. He recalls that there was a consensus amongst all involved to draw out and emphasise the humour of the play, too. “The story is quite abstract and there’s a lot about it which is quite comedic. We wanted to draw out that element of humour and sharpen the contrast with the darker elements, making the two quite extreme in opposition to one another.” Indeed, once you have laughed at Gregor’s father chasing and swatting him with a newspaper, you cannot help but feel a deep pain for him, as he is slowly dying, whilst his family, unable to understand him, continue to shut him out of their lives.
The basis of Kafka’s novel is an interior monologue of Gregor’s thoughts, and transforming these internal musings into a play that gives both dialogue and perspective to other characters was a challenge Vesturport had to overcome. McGuinness explains, “To stage the play, we had to turn these thoughts into a dialogue between the various characters. In turn, this meant we had to bring other characters to the fore a bit more than they originally were in Kafka’s novel and concentrate on the family dynamic, rather than Gregor’s mind.”
Music is inherent in this production, with a score written and produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, another element that makes their production differ from those preceding it. “Warren Ellis was often in rehearsals with us and from that he wrote a sound scape to play throughout most of the show, making it almost filmic, and that’s something which is not always done in theatre – a lot of productions use less music.” For McGuinness, the experimenting with styles and looking beyond the boundaries of Berkoff’s adaptation, also played an important role: “We played around with lots of different styles in rehearsals, from doing bits completely naturalistically to completely over the top.” The most emotional aspects of the play truly emerge in the final scenes with an accompanying song written by Musical Director Nick Cave. “The sun’s rising and everything feels quite different again. We found people were quite affected by that.” At this moment, Gregor is left hanging upside down from a red rope, as if underground, whilst his parents smile and push his sister on a swing in the garden above. “The audience are thrown so fast between the humour and the tragedy of the play. Like life, it’s not black and white.”
Vesturport’s Metamorphosis played at the Lyric Hammersmith in February and is now on tour, visiting international venues. For more information, visit http://vesturport.com/theater/metamorphosis-hamskiptin/.
Image credit: Vesturport