A performer dangles upside down, supported only by the strength of his own body; visual perspectives shift and skew across the split level set, distorting reality; a family home cracks open, metaphorically and literally, at its very centre. There is no question that this production, now six years old and making its fourth visit to the Lyric Hammersmith, remains thrilling in every sense of the word. What is so heart-stopping about the Lyric and Vesturport’s visually virtuosic rendering of Kafka’s nightmarish tale, however, is not the dazzling disbelief that such images be thought to provoke. Instead, the most chilling horror at its core is all too plausible.
Just as the true awe that is inspired by loose-limbed performer Gísli Örn Garðarsson derives from the sheer ease with which he flings himself about the set rather than the gravity-defying spectacle of his acrobatics, the real sting of the piece lies in its incisive diagnosis of the human capacity for evil. In the shell-shocked aftermath of Gregor Samsa’s titular, unexplained metamorphosis, his bewildered family grope around their shattered domestic haven in search of coping mechanisms, slowly surrendering to the most brutal of self-preservation tactics. It is a grim metaphor for society’s fear of the other and its destructive impulse to exterminate perceived threats from within.
Extending this metaphor, Vesturport’s telling of Kafka’s disturbing novella is as much a retrospective dialogue with the tale as it is an interpretation. Armed with the knowledge of twentieth-century European history, parallels with the dehumanising rhetoric of totalitarian regimes readily present themselves; a line such as “work will set us free” uttered today immediately summons the echo of Auschwitz. Most strikingly, David Farr and Garðarsson’s production presents us with a distinctly human Gregor, eschewing any attempt at physical deformity. We know that this character has transformed into a monstrous creature, but all we see before us is a man, making the monstrosity all of our own creation; the audience find themselves complicit in the same horrifying division between human and inhuman that the Samsas finally pursue.
Alongside the production’s thinly veiled allusions to Nazi Germany, money emerges as an equally sinister force. It is less Gregor’s physical state that provokes his family’s disgust than the loss of his income, while the tantalising promise of a wealthy lodger sends the Samsas physically giddy. A human being who is no longer economically useful, this version darkly hints, is no longer considered human. Every creative force at the production’s disposal unites in this act of considered excavation, from Börkur Jónsson’s mind-bending set, physically setting Gregor and his family at opposing, disjointed angles, to the steadily darkening clothing, to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ painfully haunting music.
But for all the intellectual and visual inventiveness at play, the piece’s greatest triumphs are also what threaten to soften the devastating punch it seeks. Precise rather than visceral, each movement is so delicately, meticulously calculated – from the contained physical effort of outward domestic perfection to the seductive power that emanates from a wad of bank notes as they are slowly handed over one by one – that the raw intensity of the horror gives way slightly to an unsettling but clinical choreography. As the final, stunning image imprints itself on the stage, however, such objections seem churlish. Mingling beauty with terror, it is in these closing moments that the rotten heart of Kafka’s tale finally bursts from the production’s finely polished chest.