By Lesley Boland & Arne Sjostedt
The rehearsal space for The Street Theatre’s production of Metamorphosis is filled with rapacious eating noises. A visceral, repugnant sound of excess and indecency. In the café outside, surrounded by what are thankfully less rapacious eating sounds, director Adam Broinowski talks Franz Kafka and Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of the famous novella.
A sensitive, internal writer who worked as a lawyer at the Working Men’s Accident Insurance company, Kafka dealt daily with people crushed by their conditions and exhausted by the repetitive and relentless drudgery of work. From this emerged The Metamorphosis, a tale of a man who wakes up one morning encased in an insect shell that eventually cuts him off from the rest of humanity. Bleak, certainly, but also funny.
“The humour is in the ridiculousness of it,” Broinowski says, likening the experience of watching the show to being in a car hurtling towards a cliff. We all know how it’s going to end, but at least we can laugh as we go down.
There is also a strong sense of protest in the work.
“There is a resistance there. In the irony and the humour, and the trajectory of the story where the punishment is relentless. That, in itself, is a form of protest.”
Steven Berkoff, adapting the story for the stage in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, also used the story as a form of protest against working-class oppression.
One of the devices used by Berkoff to achieve this was to never simply put a man inside an insect costume. This allowed the human aspect to be poignantly and theatrically juxtaposed against the metaphor of a man unwillingly trapped in the shell of an insect.
Drawing on rich traditions of mime, Broinowski, an academic and theatre-maker, used his experience and understanding of physical theatre to bring this sense of protest and investigation to The Street Theatre stage.
“It’s the perfect story to adapt because becoming a bug lends itself to physicalisation and the imagination,” he says. “What we’re doing is talking about how we, as humans, feel about bugs…and if [we] cast someone as an insect, what that means for power relations.”
With Canberra based actor and writer Dylan Van Den Berg playing the lead role of Gregor Samsa, and Christopher Samuel Carroll and Ruth Pieloor as Mr and Mrs S, for Broinowski, it’s questions like this that expand the story outwards from its foundations in criticism of working-class drudgery and oppression and invites audiences to connect it to contemporary issues.
“With Manus Island, with a very harsh border patrol system and way of policing migrants, all this remains relevant to us today,” says Broinowski. “And it’s likely to get worse because of what we’re seeing in continuing inter-state conflict.”
But the story itself is also enigmatic and contains no easy answers for the problems and questions it raises. Though this leaves interpretation open to audiences.
“There are many ways of interpreting the story and many things that people will find in it that will resonate with them in different ways.”
It has the potential to feel rather depressing, but that doesn’t mean there are not rays optimism amidst the crushing social commentary.
“What Kafka does relentlessly,” Broinowski says, “is show the hypocrisy of the desire to feel good about ourselves.”
The desire for a happy ending, he suggests, can often be a mask over an underlying sense of guilt at our participation in the cultural malady. And through this, withholding that happy resolution and the comforting sense of redemption it might give us, has the power to drive greater engagement.
“It kind of conversely gives you a sense of agency if you recognise that you actually do have some culpability. And so, you can stop it”
Metamorphosis is playing at The Street Theatre from 17th to the 31st August. Bookings and further information at thestreet.org.au