Watching Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis feels like being trapped in an expressionist nightmare – which is, of course, appropriate for an adaptation of Kafka’s 1915 novella.
It tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a fabric salesman who wakes up one morning transformed into some kind of monstrous insect, to the disgust of his family. But despite some astonishingly vivid moments, this is mostly an opaque and overlong outing – it takes 45 minutes before Gregor turns into the bug – which may leave audiences craving their own escape.
This production boasts a new script by the much-garlanded poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, which is a tempting proposition on paper. And he and director Scott Graham are right to identify this as a story for now: their Gregor is a man so oppressed by the pressures of capitalism – suffering in-work poverty, unreasonable targets, uncaring bosses, inescapable debt – that he’s crushed by it. Felipe Pacheco as Gregor doesn’t in any literal sense become an insect, but seems rather in the grip of an extreme mental health breakdown – what start as anxious tics and twitches soon wrack his whole body. He ends up, literally and metaphorically, climbing the walls.
This plays to Frantic Assembly’s strengths as a physical theatre company: there are brilliantly unsettling moments where Pacheco scuttles over the furniture, swings from a lamp fitting; his anxious hands crawl like insects themselves over the back of an armchair, and cloth is pulled in vomiting streams from his mouth. Jon Bausor’s design evokes both grinding poverty and the dream-like world of Sissay’s often obscure script: all weird angles, off-kilter proportions and damp stains, draped in sickly, shadowy purple tones by lighting designer Simisola Majekodunmi.
So it looks good, if you take good to mean appropriately hellish. But sadly, the actual storytelling is murky and muddy. Even the relationships between family members aren’t very clear; there’s a befuddling new subplot about Gregor being adopted, and the underexplored sexual attraction between him and his sister Grete. His parents are played with a shrill exaggeration that grates, as they flip-flop incoherently between displaying cruelty and sympathy towards Gregor.
While Sissay’s script includes, as you would expect, arresting lines (“If the walls could speak, they would not. They would wail”), there are also meandering digressions that slow everything down without adding much insight. It is a stylish production – but also a frustrating one, diluting its source material rather than distilling or expanding it.
At Leicester Curve until September 23, then touring until March 2. All tickets: franticassembly.co.uk