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  • Theatre, Experimental
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Metamorphosis, Lyric Hammersmith, 2024
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Lemn Sissay’s meditative adaptation is compelling but takes the punch away from the Kafka classic

Lemn Sissay and Frantic Assembly’s brooding, expanded take on Kafka’s immortal novella likes to toy with our expectations. 

If you’ve made it through life without reading ‘Metamorphosis’, then to summarise: Gregor Samsa, a salesman, wakes up one day to discover he’s inexplicably turned into a sort of gross giant insect thing, and is suddenly shunned by a world he worked pathetically hard to fit in with. 

In Scott Graham’s production, though, we spend a lot more time with Gregor’s pre-transformation, as Felipe Pacheco’s protagonist rises every morning, ready to face another soul-crushing day of flogging textiles. As he begins to sleep in late, miss his sales targets and vomit from stress, his movements become erratic, and he is increasingly greeted by looks of horror from his mum, dad and sister Grete. Each time this happens we suspect he’s transformed… and for almost an hour he hasn’t.

It’s a mischievous deviation from the book. And one that changes the arc of the story somewhat. While it’s rare that stage adaptations of ‘Metamorphosis’ have the actor playing Gregor literally togged up as a beetle or whatever, there’s a definite ambiguity within poet Sissay’s adaptation as to what exactly is happening to him. Gregor’s physical and mental decline is palpable from the start, suggestive of the fact that his metamorphosis is not a sudden thing, as in the book, but a gradual process. His family only seems to judge his worth by how much money he can make them: whether he’s literally turned into a monster or whether they see him as one because he can no longer work is a point never clarified. 

Sissay’s adaptation does add some supporting evidence for the latter theory: Troy Glasgow’s creepy Mr Sansa reveals Gregor was adopted, and is valued far less than biological daughter Greta.

Whatever the true nature of Gregor’s change, Pacheco busts out some truly astonishing physical feats – Frantic Assembly’s hallmark. He scuttles and crawls unnaturally – often in apparent defiance of gravity – over people, things, the nooks and crannies of Jon Bausor’s set; at one point he ‘sits’ upside down on the ceiling light, a move I’ve only previously seen carried off in Spider-Man films.

Still, there’s something that doesn’t gel about this adaptation. Sissay’s poetic expansion of the story is effective initially but ends up blunting Kafka’s brutally sharp satire. In the second half Gregor is a background adornment, which robs the denouement of its pathos. Kafka’s railing against the dehumanising nature of capitalism is punchy and incisive; Sissay kind of rams the same point home for two-and-a-half hours. 

It’s a solidly atmospheric production with real physical verve, but ironically it comes across as transitional, caught between Kafka’s terseness and Sissay’s desire to craft something more expansive. It’s trapped, mid-metamorphosis.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£15-£44. Runs 2hr 20min
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