Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Metamorphosis – a theatre adaptation from Franz Kafka by Steven Berkoff

Kafka Berkoff

Before I  go any further, I should apologize to anyone who’s arrived here expecting a profound and incisive examination of the enigma that is Franz Kafka and All His Works.  Those are waters into which I have no intention of stepping – well, not very far, anyway.  What follows is more along the lines of “How I almost got the hang of Kafka, courtesy of third party intervention.”

For many years my mantra has been “Life is too short ever to read any more Kafka”.  I place the blame for this thoroughly philistine sentiment squarely at the feet of an enthusiastic young student teacher from – as I recall – Pittsburgh who arrived at my south of England grammar school one summer on an exchange programme and proceeded to bore for his country on the subject of Franz-bloody-Kafka (as he came to be none-too-affectionately known in the 4th Form).  We were supposed to be studying Dickens, Shakespeare and George Eliot at the time, and to this day I can’t think for the life of me how Kafka got dragged into it.

In any event, the net result was a lifelong loathing of Franz K and a vague feeling that I was missing out on something.

I strongly suspect that being a grammar school girl from a safe, comfortable middle class family severely damages your ability to ‘get’ Kafka.  You have a social conscience of course, but it’s a carefully educated one and generally of the “Oh I say. That’s not fair.  Anyone got a petition I can sign?” variety.  Your exposure to the brutal realities of many people’s lives – grinding poverty, totalitarian regimes, faceless bureaucracy, social immobility, the law’s delay – is both limited and for the most part theoretical.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of the most fervent Kafka devotees I’ve ever come across have been male, intense and from backgrounds very different to my own cosseted one.

For those who are unfamiliar with Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, its storyline is both very simple and deeply weird.  Gregor Samsa is a hard-working travelling salesman and the sole provider for his feckless family.  He wakes up one morning and discovers that he has turned overnight into a giant insect … or something.  And here you hit the first problem.  Kafka wrote in German.  The word he used was Ungeziefer which  means ‘vermin’ or more literally ‘an inedible/unclean creature’.  Most Kafka translators, taking their cue from the subsequent description of Gregor’s condition,  use the word ‘bug’ or ‘insect’, but Kafka himself apparently meant it to be unclear exactly what Gregor had turned into, knowing that what we can imagine is very often infinitely worse than anything we can be shown.

With Gregor unable to work, the family starts to fall apart; they have to shift for themselves, finding employment and taking in lodgers.  The mother can’t bring herself to see her son in his transformed state, so for a while the sister cares for him but eventually the presence of the messy eater in the back room becomes an intolerable and resented burden;  there’s a huge family row and it all inevitably ends unhappily for Gregor.

Kafka left no waymarkers to help us interprethis enigmatic work, and huge swathes of forest have been consumed by the mountain of criticism, interpretation and analysis which has sprung up over the intervening years, and which, if read with close attention, amounts to very little more than “Your guess is as good as mine”.

Turning The Metamorphosis into a stage play was, on the face of it, an act of insanity.  It therefore makes a certain amount of sense that it was Steven Berkoff who tried it – which is not to say I think he’s crazy – just utterly fearless.  He’s also a man who, in his own writing, says exactly what he thinks – making him the polar opposite of Kafka.

As with all of Berkoff’s plays and theatrical adaptations, the stage setting is minimal and precisely described.  There are no props apart from three stools;  everything else is mimed.  The Samsas’ house is indicated only by scaffolding, which spans the stage in the shape of a giant insect.  Gregor, in his back room, is continually visible to the audience at the back of the stage, on a raised and ramped platform.

Kafka tells most of the  story through Gregor’s eyes and accordingly so does Berkoff.  Throughout the play we – the audience –  see  Gregor even when his family cannot and we alone are privy to his thoughts and feelings.

Playing Gregor requires an extraordinary degree of physical strength and agility because Berkoff, who originally took  on the role himself,  has him assuming the form of an insect – climbing the scaffolding, hanging from the walls and ceiling.  In doing so, he gives form and shape to Kafka’s bizarre vision, and Gregor – and his predicament  – become much more real and tragic as a result.  Instead of being a figment of a writer’s unsettling imagination, he’s flesh and blood and his subsequent rejection, disintegration and resignation are painful to witness.

Gregor’s transformation cuts him off from human contact.  His family have no idea how much, if anything, he understands – how much of ‘Gregor’ is left in the creature in their back room.  We know, however, exactly how much of the man remains in the Ungeziefer.  And that, for me, is where Berkoff triumphs.  I never engaged with Kafka’s novella at all.  Reading it was an academic exercise, not an emotional one.  Berkoff’s stage adaptation not only gives Gregor a human face it also unearths the unexpected humour in the story.  Kafka and his friends apparently thought the tale was riotously funny – a quality it seems to have lost over the years (possibly because of the all the po-faced analysis it’s suffered).  Berkoff, almost miraculously, rediscovers it.

I’m not going to say that I’ve learned to love Kafka because of this adaptation, but it has sent me back to the original with fresh  eyes.  I’m prepared to have another go – and that’s a major achievement in itself.

This version of The Metamorphosis was published – in conjunction with Steven Berkoff’s adaptations of The Trial and In the Penal Colony – by  Amer Lane Press Ltd.  2003 reprint. ISBN: 0-906399-84-X.  142pp.

7 comments on “Metamorphosis – a theatre adaptation from Franz Kafka by Steven Berkoff

  1. annebrooke
    January 28, 2011

    Really enjoyed this review, thanks, Moira – it’s made me think again about Metamorphosis, which is always a good thing!


    January 28, 2011

    Spot on, Moira! Steven Berkoff as I know him can be either a ‘monstre sacré’ or a ‘sacré monstre’. I actually saw Roman Polanski do this in French in Paris which was equally unbelievable-fabulous, in fact and brilliantly translated. Berkoff truly is a man for all seasons and I, too, was somewhat mystified by Kafka, when I read him at school but SB does bring to it a wicked sense of humour and his imagination is ‘non pareil’.
    I enjoyed this review immensely and hope you get to interview him at some point!
    JAY xx

  3. Jackie
    January 28, 2011

    Though I’m not male, I am intense & from a lower class background and have always liked “Metamorphosis”. I’ve read it several times, once with my local book discussion group(they’ve not forgiven me for it, yet) & each time find more to it, often to the point of tears. Though there’s many layers, the one that has always touched me has been the message about alienation. I’ve some of Kafka’s other works, but “Metamorphosis” remains my favorite.
    This stage version sounds like an interesting angle to take on it & I can see how it might be more appealing than the novelization of it. I applaud Berkoff’s imagination & courage in bringing such a difficult work to the stage.

  4. Melrose
    January 29, 2011

    Haven’t read any Kafka – there are simply so many things you can do/read in the time available, but you have made Metamorphosis sound like something I will settle down to read one day. It is an interesting concept, and sounds like it really comes alive on stage, despite the minimal setting – concentrating the mind solely on the actors. Fascinating that the people of Kafka’s time found the tale funny, whereas nowadays this reception would seem to be more unusual. It appears that the stage version of Metamorphoses is perhaps near to how it used to be received.

  5. niks87
    January 29, 2011

    I’m another that doesn’t get Kafka, however I too saw Metamorphosis on stage. I saw a different version (for the life of me can’t remember the company that did it, will have to look that up). The stage was split level, the family downstair and Gregor upstairs. The only difference in Gregor after the change was his movements. The guy playing him was incredible, the floor upstairs was transformed into a trampoline and he bounced up onto the walls, clambering about like – well, like an insect.

    Strangely enough, the play did not drive me to the book. I took enough from the play. And a really good one it was too! But perhaps, reading Jackie’s comment, perhaps I will pick it up. Thanks for the review, Moira, and thanks, Jackie for the comment.

  6. Hilary
    January 30, 2011

    Another one here who has never even engaged with Kafka in my reading life, but after this review, I just might. I wish I could have seen this, Moira – you make it sound as though it brought out all the layers in Metamorphosis that a frightened reader might miss – the humour particularly. Thanks for this very perceptive review!

  7. Pingback: In Conversation with: Steven Berkoff | Vulpes Libris

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