STAGE REVIEW: Metamorphosis @ Northern Stage, Newcastle (24.10.23) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

So kicks off Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, the master blender of the real and the fantastic spectacularly failing to bury the lede. 

Countless translations of this bracing opening sentence from the original German have cast a teasing pall over what poor Gregor metamorphoses into, casting him variously as “monstrous vermin”, “cockroach”, “bedbug” and more. This confusion over just who and what Gregor is sits at the heart of a dizzying production from Frantic Assembly.

Falling out of bed day after day into a spirit-crushing routine, the vertiginous repetitiveness of finding oneself ground ever-smaller by a brutal system is rendered vivid as a lush, vaporwave-adjacent soundbed transforms into a pounding, haunting soundtrack to the perpetual monotony of Gregor’s existence.

While those hoping for a literalist interpretation of Gregor’s fate will be disappointed, the transformation sequence itself is truly startling, an unsettling near-Lovecraftian cataclysm of bedclothes as the seeming monstrosity forms beneath.  Kafka himself did not want to give readers an easy answer as to what Gregor looked like, insisting even that the book cover did not depict an insect, but instead an open door.

Brazilian-British actor and movement artist Felipe Pacheco brings stunning physicality to the role, fusing truly gravity-defying stunts with raw vulnerability, holding audience sympathy as his family struggles with visceral repulsion and the corrosive burden of care.

The nods to German Expressionism go beyond Pacheco’s hyperreal, soul-illuminating performance, with the set a broiling jumble of impossible angles and forced perspective, bolstered by truly stunning (and stunningly simple) lighting and some neat stage magic.

Following the mid-play transformation, the second half sees the rest of the cast getting significant moments in the spotlight (with Louise Mai Newberry’s yearning, soulful Mrs Samsa a standout), leaving Gregor himself somewhat lost in the mix, looming in the background like an embarrassing memory, a diagnosis unconfirmed, a fate to be avoided. Given the aims of both Frantic Assembly and Kafka himself, this, of course, may well be the whole point.

Metamorphosis runs at Northern Stage, Newcastle until Saturday 28th October.

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