Director Adam Broinowski and a team of actors gifted in physical theatre have embarked upon a production of Berkoff’s “The Metamorphosis”. HELEN MUSA previews it.
WHEN a young travelling salesman wakes up to find himself turning into an insect, you can be sure all is not well with society.
It was so in 1915 when, in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Kafka wrote his famous novella, “The Metamorphosis”.
It was so in 1969 when English theatre enfant terrible Steven Berkoff adapted the novella for the stage.
And it certainly is so in 2019 as climate change assails our way of life and threatens that insects may be the only living creatures remaining after we destroy the earth.
For entomologically-inclined readers, the correct translation from the original German of “ungeheures ungeziefer”, is not “insect” but “a monstrous vermin” or “a verminous bug”.
With all this in mind, director Adam Broinowski and a team of actors gifted in physical theatre have embarked upon a production of the Berkoff version at The Street Theatre.
Berkoff, trained at Jacques Lecoq’s school of physical theatre in Paris, initially played Gregor Samsa, the salesman, and prefaced the published script with the words: “How I almost got the hang of Kafka”.
Broinowski believes that Berkoff successfully retained Kafka’s verbal density even as he showed Gregor climbing, crawling, hanging from the walls, feeling his skin harden, working out how and what to eat and, above all, relating to his family.
“The family is as much the insect as Gregor is,” Broinowski says of the dysfunctional trio of father, mother and sister, who seem more alien than human at times.
“The way Berkoff saw it, the characters were living within a system that makes people into insects, their skins were shrinking and, like their souls, Gregor’s transition into an insect is a kind of rebellion against the system.”
Broinowski, born into a Canberra diplomatic family, partly educated in Japan and armed with a PhD from the University of Melbourne, is now a post-doctoral research fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU, but it’s the physical side of theatre that fascinates him.
He’s worked with a physical theatre company in Japan, as a director of Emma Gibson’s version of Randolph Stow’s “Tourmaline” for The Street last year and now relishes the opportunity of developing “Metamorphosis” with talent such as Dylan Van Den Berg as Gregor, Christopher Samuel Carroll as his father, Ruth Pieloor as his mother and, newcomer to The Street (but by no means to the wider theatre in Canberra), Stefanie Lekkas in the key role of the sister, Grete, who needs to get rid of her increasingly insect-like brother if she is to survive in society.
By happy coincidence Carroll, who like Berkoff, trained at the Lecoq School, is on hand with Broinowski to assure us that the production will not be above the audiences’ heads and that the play is “playful and very, very funny”.
“The text is very irreverent, it reminds me of vaudeville,” he says.
“We are tapping into the physicality of the story,” says Carroll, explaining that while the play is notionally set in a large house, designer Imogen Keen has created a cage within the stage to hold Gregor, complete with harnesses and ropes from which he can suspend.
“The ropes are a wonderful device to suggest being caught or trapped,” says Carroll.
As director Broinowski has invested in the story intellectually and has been reading up on his Kafka and a lot of literary theory, but he is quick to emphasise that there is a real plot, with a character almost as complex in Lekkas’ role as the sister.
Briefly, the play is set in a materialistic world still as resonant as the days Kafka wrote the novella. There’s something murky in the background of the family meaning they need to pay off a huge debt. Gregor’s sister, Grete Samsa, of marriageable age, becomes collateral in the financial negotiations of the family. And having an insect in the family doesn’t help – we won’t tell you what happens, but it doesn’t look good for Gregor.
“Metamorphosis”, The Street Theatre, August 16-31. Book at thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.