This is not a story that needed to be in two acts, and by the interval it had taken a considerable amount of time to cover a relatively small amount of narrative. Gregor Samsa (Felipe Pacheco) has, for reasons unexplained, transformed from a human into – well, something else, and while his father, only known as Mr Samsa (Troy Glasgow) requests that his daughter (and Gregor’s sister) Greta (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) sends for a doctor, Mrs Samsa (Louise Mai Newberry) immediately dissuades her from doing so. Something about public shame or not wanting anyone else to know, even though the Chief Clerk (Joe Layton) at Gregor’s workplace had shown up and seen the transformation from human to non-human animal for himself. This was, mind you, back in the day, before telephones and so on, when chiefs of staff would apparently go around to people’s houses to check if an employee was okay, or as the narrative would have it, to berate Gregor for not meeting his sales targets.
The very idea that someone could send for a doctor, and one would be able to attend pretty much straight away (as opposed to having to get a lift or a taxi to a surgery, or even to the accident and emergency department) isn’t one I have any familiarity with, except perhaps watching a repeat of an episode of The Waltons several decades ago. That isn’t to say there aren’t parallels to be drawn from this production into contemporary society. Keeping up appearances, as the Samsa family attempts to do, has its modern equivalents in, for instance, social media accounts that always display the account holder as having a wonderful time, living life to the fullest extent, without a care in the world.
The transformation into non-human animal (to borrow a term from the field of philosophy) is metaphorical as much as it is physical. Frantic Assembly are known for their physical theatre (the woman sat next to me must have told her companion at least a dozen times before the show, “I think it’s going to be quite physical”, and Pacheco’s flexibility and gymnastic ability as Gregor is nothing short of astonishing. Essentially, though, Gregor is suffering from workplace burnout, physically and emotionally exhausted, and has little interest in looking after himself, in the sense that he often refuses food supplied to him by Greta. As this is also the days before social security, someone has to go out to work (or, presumably, it’s the poorhouse for them all), so the rest of the family do what they can.
The set comprises an oddly shaped room, and I frankly found it bizarre that furniture and other pieces could be moved in and out of Gregor’s room by pushing and pulling it through a wall, but characters entering or exiting the room had to do so via the bedroom door. Particularly in the first half, the underlying music cut across too much of the dialogue and action, almost as if the family was in a restaurant, talking over tunes being piped into the room. Themes disappear as quickly as they emerge: an unusual display of affection between the siblings drew gasps at the performance I attended but was never spoken of again, and glimpses of the dark side of capitalism could have been expanded upon.
“My name is Gregor Samsa, and I like fabric,” the young man says, over and over again, and it isn’t the only thing that gets repeated. Mr Samsa’s mantra, which, to his credit, he never claims to have originated, is simply “beggars can’t be choosers”, though Troy Glasgow as Samsa does better than anyone else at taking a phrase and making it sound increasingly convincing with each iteration. While it is not necessary to have encountered the story before to get one’s head around what is happening, as I began by saying, two hours and twenty minutes is rather too long for the ground covered. The physical theatre is a spectacle, but it also comes across as filler for a fairly flimsy story, and the stage is sometimes very busy for the sake of busyness. I suppose that goes well with the presentation of workplace burnout.
Review by Chris Omaweng
One morning Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself changed. To those around him he is dangerous, untouchable vermin. Worse than that, he is a burden.
A word said, an action out of place, the opening of old wounds, none of which can be undone. Until now Gregor has woken every morning, quietly left to take the same train, and worked to pay off the family debt. But that world explodes on this morning of brutal metamorphosis.
Commissioned and produced by Frantic Assembly, in a co-production with Theatre Royal Plymouth, Curve, MAST Mayflower Studios and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
By Franz Kafka. Adapted by Lemn Sissay OBE. Directed by Scott Graham.
01 Feb – 02 Mar 2024