Theatre / “Metamorphosis”, directed by Adam Broinowski, at The Street Theatre, August 17-31. Reviewed by JOE WOODWARD.
PERHAPS a measure of a playwright’s transcendent qualities is the level of harsh criticisms received over decades of production. Writers have published books and academic articles condemning Steven Berkoff’s achievements, style and personality. Still, they have not diminished the fervour of his relationship with theatre, theatre directors, theatre students and theatre audiences. The Street’s production of “Metamorphosis” is an illustration of why.
Kafka virtually reinvented literature with one line: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”
This simple line begins a nightmarish evocation of extreme alienation that is both compelling and personal. There are infinite ways it might be represented in art, film or theatre. As with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, the work suggests a plausible absurdity.
Berkoff’s adaptation utilises the skills and approaches he gained from his study at École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He famously suggested “”Naturalism, Like Smoking, is bad for your Health”. His theatre career has been constructed around the explorations in physical presentation of abstract and highly complex social and political ideas and experiences.
Broinowski’s interpretation of “Metamorphosis” extolls the virtues of Kafka and Berkoff, making the production highly accessible for a contemporary audience. It is not “Marxist kitsch” as described by Frank Rich in his New York Times review of “Baryshnikov in Metamorphosis” in 1989. Rather, the production draws the audience into a world where the everyday human interactions become bug-like and devoid of any real critical thinking faculty or emotional intelligence. It is a subsistence survival mode where humans like cockroaches scramble to the table of wealth, loot it for the crumbs and scamper away.
Gregor Samsa dreams of a greater substance and so becomes aware of his painful insect reality that eats away at him and finally demands his obliteration.
In order to create a plausible universe it is necessary to distort the everyday actions and use exaggeration with significant objects in the household and relationships. Broinowski and his cast exploit the suggested mime techniques to realise this potential. It is very demanding on the actors.
Ruth Pieloor, Christopher Samuel Carroll, Stefanie Lekkas and Dylan Van Den Berg offer highly physical execution of the characters. They mime, cluster together, climb, use masks and generally create disturbing and penetrating imagery that gives weight to the subject.
Vocally, the actors mostly sustained the demands of interacting and communicating with each other and the audience. Van Den Berg’s bug was physically demanding and engaging; though much of the dialogue was presented in a fairly monotonous and unvaried way. This may well be overcome with more attention to variations in inflections at the end of lines. This said, his performance was powerful and elevated the absurd drama of the piece.
The design was sculpted in keeping with the distorted universe of the play. It allowed movement across and even above the space. The narrowness of the stage depth, however, meant there were some sightline issues with the bug’s actions mostly only viewed by people in the front row. While not a critical point, it meant some of Van Den Berg’s subtleties might have been missed.
“Metamorphosis” is a production that theatre needs as a constant rejuvenating force. The Street has done Canberra a favour by scheduling such a high quality production of an iconic work.