Mirvish presents a new production of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in Toronto
“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” So begins Franz Kafka’s absurdist novella The Metamorphosis which has been cleverly adapted into a surprisingly moving production by British theatre Lyric Hammersmith and Icelandic theatre company Vesturport. Metamorphosis is making its Canadian premiere in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Gregor Samsa (Björn Thors) is a traveling salesman and sole breadwinner for his family. After his sudden and unexplained metamorphosis into a giant vermin he holes himself away in his room relying on his sister Greta (Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir) to become his caretaker. As his family becomes increasingly repulsed by his vermin form Gregor sinks deeper into his state of alienation.
The Metamorphosis is widely studied and often cited as an example of existentialism and surrealism. I’m used to approaching Kafka intellectually but what surprised me most about this staged version of the story is how much of an emotional impact it had.
Fully realized on stage with flesh-and-blood actors this Metamorphosis places less emphasis on the source material’s dense layers of symbolism and primarily becomes a metaphor for a family forced to come to terms when one of its members develops a disability or debilitating chronic condition and the effect it has on the family as a whole. In that context the show becomes both incredibly poignant and devastatingly sad. It’s sure to resonate with anybody who has been a caregiver to an aging parent or an ailing family member.
Börkur Jónsson’s split-level set design cleverly illustrates Kafka’s surreal, off-kilter world by inverting Gregor’s upstairs bedroom so the audience has an overhead view.
Co-directors David Farr and Gisli Örn Gardarsson made the smart decision not to style Gregor as an actual vermin. Though his family reacts violently to his appearance and voice he looks and sounds perfectly human to the audience; itself a poignant bit of symbolism.
Instead of relying on costuming Thors uses movement to convey his character. The role of Gregor/the Vermin is incredibly physical, the movement design blends elements of parkour and aerial circus arts. Thors often dangles upside-down or leaps on the furniture throughout the show; he has the agility and athleticism of an acrobat and he’s amazing to watch.
Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir undergoes an equally remarkable transformation in the role of Greta, Gregor’s sister. Initially, sweet and sympathetic to her transformed brother she assumes the role of his primary caretaker and we watch as she becomes increasingly resentful and embittered by her burden. Her arc is the most compelling of the characters in the show.
The other actors in the show are slightly less convincing but fortunately their roles aren’t as pivotal to the story.
Underlying the proceedings is an original musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis of the band The Bad Seeds. Their subtle, atmospheric and unobtrusive score beautifully highlights the underlying tension in the story.
Overall, I really enjoyed this staging of Metamorphosis and was pleasantly surprised at how it made the work less cerebral and more emotional for me. While it’s maybe a bit more high-brow than the Broadway musicals that Mirvish usually presents, and is something that’d be more in-line with the offerings down the road at Canadian Stage, I think it’s presented in an accessible way and it’s well worth seeing if you’re looking for something a little bit different. It’s absurd, it’s surreal but it’s also poignant.
- Metamorphosis is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) through March 9, 2014
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $25.00 to $99.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Björn Thors by Simon Kane