Arthur Pita’s take on Franz Kafka’s novella opens the new season at ROH2, the Royal Opera House’s contemporary unit that nurtures young talent. It does feature one star name though, Royal Ballet principle dancer Ed Watson, who plays the protagonist, Gregor Samsa.
It’s subjective, of course, but I’ve always thought the wonder of Kafka’s text lies in the mundane way in which he describes something really quite other-worldly, in the way his descriptions of Gregor’s grotesque, surreal transformation from man to bug sit alongside the sheer ordinariness of the rest of his family. Simon Daw’s set conveys this senses of the ordinary, though it’s layered with an underlying sense of unease. As you enter the auditorium, the family is already going about their daily business; with the stage arranged in traverse, the audience become the flies on the wall in the Samsas’ home.
Grainy, black and white footage of insects is projected onto one wall and shown in almost forensic detail. The entire set is white, lending a clinical feel to the surroundings as well as an air of austerity – a nod to the era in which the book was published. The emphasis on the everyday is rammed home in the opening sequence, in which Gregor’s humdrum daily routine is played out, not once, not twice, but three times. Too many times, perhaps, but there are some amusing details in amongst this: the coffee lady who switches to selling alcohol at night; the grumpy suited man that Gregor bumps into every morning.
Gregor’s sister, Greta (a sweet Laura Day, still a student at the Royal Ballet Upper School), starts off as a squeaky youngster with two left feet – fittingly her character is now an aspiring dancer rather than a would-be violinist – but she ends the opening section performing graceful port de bras and balancés, the the only real clue to the fact the these opening moments encompass a period of years.
Frank Moon’s score, which the composer performs live, is evocative of the period and, during the moment of ‘the metamorphosis’, the soundscape fills with amplified insect noises matched with high staccato notes on the violin – taking a leaf from the Psycho rulebook that little is more terrifying than repeated notes played on the E string.
Ed Watson, not surprising given his strength, flexibility and agility, makes a mesmerising Gregor. The moment he mysteriously, incomprehensibly transforms and his daily alarm left to ring and ring, Watson becomes locked in angled, uncompromising, unnatural shapes. He opens his arms and assumes a crouching position as if to attack; he curls up in a ball to hide his vulnerability. There is also a heart-wrenching duet in which Greta continually pulls Gregor upright: her attempt to humanise him.
I’d rather hoped that the vocabulary would develop into something more fluid, as Gregor gradually gets used to his alien body, while retaining that initial feeling of physical discomfort and dislocation, but I was disappointed in this regard. Save for some hyper-extended movements later on in the piece, the choreography remains mostly a series of shapes – though Watson, with his beautiful lines and innate sense of drama, makes a very good job with what he’s been given. (Elsewhere, the dancing feels more forced: must we always twirl around chairs before sitting on them?)
There is one baffling scene in which Gregor’s bed tilts, the entire atmosphere changes and a number of dark figures come in, drenched in – and vomiting forth – the blood-like substance that the transformed Gregor is already secreting. For me, it was at this point that the piece moved from a sophisticated thriller to an outright gore fest, from Psycho to Saw. Later, three identically dressed men arrive at the house as new lodgers, and engage in an amusing dance sequence which the family joins in with. While this scene, with its suggestion that the family has almost forgotten about Gregor and his plight, is true to the original story, it feels like an unnecessary distraction in a piece that is already too long.
In this instance the comedy Pita has injected into the production feels like a betrayal of Kafka, the absurdity feels forced, contrived, rather than organic. Ultimately this production is more a story of a metamorphosis than The Metamorphosis. But it is a bold, ambitious piece nonetheless.