Think you know one of the greatest horror stories ever written? Think again. Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and poet Lemn Sissay OBE have joined forces to dissect and reimagine Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which lands at Bristol Old Vic this month. Lyn Gardner speaks to Graham and Sissay about retelling this 100-year-old gruesome tale, which still feels so timely in 2024.
In 2019, when actor, writer and director Fraser Ayres suggested to Scott Graham, the artistic director of Frantic Assembly – one of the most iconic and collaborative British theatre companies of the last 30 years – that he might like to stage a version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, his initial response was a resounding ‘no’.
“Why would I want to go anywhere near it?” he says. “It comes with so much baggage and so much expectation.” He’s right. Everyone thinks they know Kafka’s 1915 novella, Metamorphosis, which tells of Gregor Samsa, a weary travelling salesman and sole breadwinner in his debt-ridden family, who wakes up one morning to find that he has been turned into a giant beetle. Confined to his room, Gregor becomes completely reliant on the family that once relied on him.
It’s been described as the best horror story ever written, and its influence can be found in popular culture from video games to the Rolling Stones’ 1975 album, Metamorphosis, which comes with a cover in which the bands’ human features have been replaced by bug heads. There have been movies, operas and theatre productions inspired by the story, including Steven Berkoff’s famed 1969 physical theatre show.
“If you make theatre and attempt this story there is a worry that you are always going to be in the shadow of Berkoff,” says Graham.
It’s a story written with such restraint, and it contains so much fear and cruelty. I couldn’t get it out my head”
But after discussing it at length with Ayres, whose personal reaction suggested a powerful story much less about transformation and more about the power of perception, Graham found it stayed with him like an itch that had to be scratched. Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis set out on a six-month tour across the UK last autumn, and hits the stage at Bristol Old Vic on 10 January, running until 20 January. So, why the change of heart for Graham?
“It’s a story written with such restraint, and it contains so much fear and cruelty,” he says. “I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was written more than a 100 years ago, but it feels so timely. So now.”
Graham had found the source, or the key, that would allow him to unlock the story and make us see it afresh. It’s what keeps classic works of art alive for new generations.
Reimagining the tale Teaming up with the BAFTA-nominated poet, broadcaster and author, Lemn Sissay OBE, who has written the script, Graham and his team are reimagining Kafka’s story on stage as a tale of a family under pressure which is crushed by external economic forces, and who end up crushing each other.
“Gregor is the breadwinner,” says Graham, “and the family are like parasites upon him. But when he transforms, he is less valuable to them and becomes a burden and we see what happens.”
Lemn Sissay describes it as: “a story about a family with a big secret locked in one of its rooms. The change that happens to Gregor exposes the flaws and fissures and insecurities that already exist in the family. There are so many different tensions already in play long before Gregor wakes up as a bug.”
Sissay, who says that collaborating with Frantic Assembly is like creating a piece of “intricate origami,” argues that everything in his script can be found in Kafka’s story. “It’s all there, I haven’t invented. I wouldn’t dream of trying to rewrite such a brilliant text.”
Sissay has been a poet by profession for 30 years. So, when Frantic Assembly asked him to write a play, and specifically this adaptation of Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis, he said “the first thing I did was run away!”
“Adapting a novella as well known as Metamorphosis is a challenge for any writer,” he admits. “You’re in for a ride. It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s like climbing a mountain, man. And what you get to see when you come to see Frantic Assembly is the view from the mountain top. In rehearsals, we went through line after line. Every single movement. There are a million ways to move with any one sentence. Frantic Assembly is all about movement, connection, getting the absolute upmost out of every single line and emotion in the script. For a writer that is a privilege. And for an audience? Wow.”
Since the play’s conception in 2019, everyone involved in the production has navigated an uncertain landscape. Metamorphosis has undergone a transformation of its own, through Covid, out into the open air and is now emerging from its chrysalis in a post-pandemic world. For Sissay, all of this work across four years “is leading to that moment when you’re sat on the edge of your seat”.
Translating the transformation Academics have long argued over whether Gregor’s metamorphosis is actual or metaphorical, but Graham suggests that it can be both, particularly in the liminal space of the stage where the audience has a different relationship to the material than as a solo reader. He reckons that if you look very closely at the story the clues are all there, and that what happens to Gregor might be seen as a mental health crisis. Long before Sissay began writing the script, the company – loved and admired for its physically dynamic and emotionally truthful shows, including a recent brilliant version of Othello – was already exploring elements of the text, particularly the fear and sense of the other or ‘monstering’ which is inherent within it.
This is a story of a family under stress from without and within. It looks like a normal family and operates like a normal family, but there are hidden weaknesses”
“I don’t think what happens to Gregor is a supernatural event,” observes Graham. “I think it’s a result of stress. The Samsa family is drowning in debt, a debt that has resulted because of the father’s bankruptcy. Like Gregor, the father has had a moment of transformation, when he has gone from breadwinner to burden.
“Gregor is desperate to get the family out of debt and the confined life they lead. He is aspiring to something else, particularly for his sister Grete who plays the violin and who he hopes can take it further. One of the elements of the story is about aspiration, and what people from different backgrounds can aspire to, that feels really timely because of the articulation of the idea that people from backgrounds like Grete’s can’t play the violin or shouldn’t aspire to a career in the arts.”
Shining a light on Grete This is a story which comes with such a memorable and killer opening line that those who read it never forget it. “It is complete genius,” agrees Graham, but he also wonders whether it might be a red herring that immediately makes everyone think that the title of the novella refers to Gregor, and only Gregor.
Sissay agrees: “I think the metamorphosis that takes place is as much about Grete as it is about Gregor. She is the person in the story who experiences great change of many different kinds. She is in the process of becoming a woman. It’s all there in the text, and once you see it you can’t unsee it. It is so clear.”
The pubescent Grete is the member of the family closest to Gregor, and when he becomes a bug while her parents recoil it is she who takes on the task of entering his room and bringing him food.
“Feeding somebody is an extraordinary act of intimacy,” says Graham, who points to the fact that there are already tensions and ambiguities and confusions in Gregor and Grete’s relationship as there are within the whole family. Those tensions will finally detonate in unexpected ways and with far reaching consequences.
“This is a story of a family under stress from without and within,” Graham adds. “It looks like a normal family and operates like a normal family, but there are hidden weaknesses. When the cracks begin to appear, the structure cannot hold. It’s a tragedy.”
Metamorphosis is at Bristol Old Vic from 10-20 January. Sissay will also join Nancy Medina, the venue’s artistic director, for an hour-long stage talk that will take place at 5pm on Monday 15 January. bristololdvic.org.uk; franticassembly.co.uk