Monday, April 20, 2020

Stunner: The Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis at London’s Royal Opera House. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

For the next month, Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which premiered at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011, can be streamed on Youtube – and you don’t want to miss it. I think it’s one of the most astonishing pieces of theatre or dance that I’ve ever seen. Baryshnikov starred in a stage version, directed by Steven Berkoff, in 1989, that I thought was fake and repetitive; Baryshnikov was the only reason to see it, but it didn’t serve him especially well. Pita made this adaptation for Edward Watson, one of the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers, who has a narrow, geometric face that matches his marvelously elongated frame – the perfect physical equipment to play Gregor Samsa, the Czech bourgeois who awakes one day to find he’s been transformed into an insect.

Kafka begins with Samsa’s revelation; Pita and the composer, Frank Moon, have added an expressionistic prelude that sketches in both Gregor’s typical work day, which is punctuated by infusions of coffee and alcohol proffered by a lady with a cart (Bettine Carpi), and his fond relationship with his sister Grete (Laura Day), a little girl (she’s a young woman in Kafka’s novella) who aspires to become a ballerina. Gregor brings home a pair of new ballet slippers for her, and her cries of delight, like the Coffee Lady’s invitation to her customers, provide counterpoint to Moon’s beautiful score, which is violin-heavy in these opening minutes and has the lyrical, minor-key feel of gypsy music. (The score is in fact highly varied: sometimes it’s atonal and other times it takes on elements of klezmer and honky-tonk.) After the opening the action is restricted to two rooms in the Samsa house, where Gregor and Grete live with their parents: Gregor’s bedroom, to which he’s confined once he has undergone his metamorphosis, and the kitchen, the center of social activity in the household. A strip of light connects them. Simon Daw’s set and costumes evoke the 1950s, with the odd exception (a blender that Grete uses to whip up cold soup for Gregor, the single food she offers him that he doesn’t find repulsive). The visual style is a mix of expressionism (for the opening), suggested realism (for the kitchen, the bastion of normalcy, and initially for Gregor’s room), and surrealism. In an amazing sequence Gregor dreams that he’s a man once again but is assaulted by inky-black vermin that inhabit him, dramatizing his struggle between what he still believes is his interior reality and the inescapable, incomprehensible outer reality that has taken him over. When he wakes once again his bedroom has become a surrealist canvas, the wall containing his window weirdly angled, his bed upended, and the entire space streaked with inky discharges. And Gregor himself, naked since his transformation except for a pair of white shorts and black markings like tattoos or Rorschach blots on his neck, chest, chin and mouth, is now covered with the oily black fluid.

When Gregor awakens as an insect, Watson is on his back, all his limbs extended and wriggling. He tries to get out of bed, lands on his side, and manipulates himself onto his belly, with his upper body and legs in the air. Whichever position he adopts, his arms and legs are twisted, entwined, his hands are flattened and his fingers are splayed. Alone again after his family sees what has happened to him and rushes out of his room in terror, he explores his new physicality, extending one leg and then another straight out; then he realizes that he can climb the window frame. Watson’s work is mesmerizing, though most it isn’t solo. Most of the movement Pita has given him is in the form of extraordinary pas de deux with Day as Grete, Carpi, reappearing as the maid, and finally Nina Goldman as Mrs. Samsa. The maid, who keeps up a stream of untranslatable complaints as she toils (the language seems to be a made-up composite of imitation Czech and imitation Russian), has a weird, pragmatic relationship with this newly altered entity. She uses her mop as a weapon to keep him at a distance, scolding him; then she uses the handle to lift him, one limb at a time, out of her way and finally she carries him piggyback to his bed and covers him with a sheet. Her objective is to clean the damn room and he’s an obstacle because he won’t stay still.

Later, his mother enters his room and faints when she sees its nightmarish reconfiguration. He partners her, moving her inert body back and forth on his joints with a sort of insect tenderness, inching across the floor with her outstretched on the small of his back. Then he lifts her in the air with his legs and eventually, shockingly, he mounts her – it’s the only physical expression of love remaining to him. Grete walks in and screams, and their father corners him, hurling objects at him furiously to keep him at bay until he can slam the door shut. While Watson demonstrates with his body all the ways in which Gregor has become a bug, his face conveys the sadness of his distance from these humans who were once the people he felt closest to, and by this point in the piece he looks ravaged, exhausted.

Pita’s choreography juxtaposes Gregor’s twisted moves with the kind of movement acceptable in human society: Grete’s dancing, Mrs. Samsa’s calisthenics, a formal pas de deux between Grete and her father. (Neil Reynolds, whom Pita has cast in this role, appears to be a non-dancer; his stiffness in this section comments comically and ironically on his refusal to recognize a kinship with his transformed son.) What Watson does with his body is a fun-house mirror version of these, and when Grete begins to sway to an LP of a female singer, she appears to be mimicking her brother’s physicality, improvising an elegant ballet version of what she’s seen him do. His final effort to make a connection with the humans is to join them in the kitchen while they’re dancing a hora with some Hasidic guests. But they’re repelled when he invades their space. His only resort is to die, which Pita stages solemnly, achingly, by having him simply disappear out the window. At the end Mr. and Mrs. Samsa and Grete process into his room in mourning and stand upstage at the window while Grete removes her coat and takes a ballet pose that suggests a moment of liberation. It had been years since I’d read The Metamorphosis but I returned to it after watching this adaptation and found the source of this strange final moment right there in Kafka’s conclusion: “Grete had blossomed into a fine strapping girl . . . They became calmer; almost unconsciously they exchanged glances; it occurred to both of them that it would soon be time for her to find a husband. And it seemed to them that their daughter’s gestures were a confirmation of these dreams of theirs, an encouragement for their good intentions, when, at the end of the journey, the girl rose before them and stretched her young body.” Pita has simply substituted career for marriage; in his piece, as in Kafka’s story, Gregor’s convenient departure is a kind of gift to his family that wipes the slate clean and permits them – and especially his sister – to move on with their lives.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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