Arthur Pita brings a Kafka classic to life: The Royal Ballet in Metamorphosis

Streamed on-line by The Royal Opera House, April 17, 2020

David Mead

A sudden, unexpected transformation, family duty, responsibility, alienation. That’s Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a novella that lends itself to the many readings it’s had since it was published 105 years ago.

Kafka’s story tells of Gregor Samsa, a man unaccountably transformed into some sort of insect, his family’s reactions and the tensions it brings. Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre adaptation for The Royal Ballet sticks close some to the original, and like that leaves enough room for personal interpretation. The atmospheric production won him a Southbank Sky Arts Award and the superb Edward Watson a deserved Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance for his portrayal of Gregor.

The opening fifteen minutes sets a scene of mundane normality. We see Gregor get up; go to work, always taking the apple that’s been left out for him; always stopping for a coffee on the way; come home, always stopping for a drink; have dinner. Not once but three times. The clean white of the set, its walls, furniture, even the kitchenware, is striking.

Even here, one senses something is amiss, however. He is very detached. His mind seems elsewhere. You see this especially at the dinner table, where camera close-ups ram the point home. Even his enthusiastic sister Grete (Laura Day) showing off her ballet skills fails to rouse any emotion. He’s no automaton but one senses he’s little more than a cog in a greater machine.

On day three, the signs are there. It rains. Mrs Samsa, their mother (Nina Goldman) looks pensive after dinner, again some super close-ups emphasise this, and the one aspect where film scores over live performance. Mr Samsa (Neil Reynolds) seems to detect nothing amiss.

Waking to find himself transformed and now repellent in appearance, Gregor has to self-isolate. Watson draws on every sinew to articulate and try to comprehend his position. His dance is incredibly detailed. Every movement of every joint seems important, even in his fingers and toes, which twitch like antennae. His body contorts as he tries to adjust to his new being. Limbs twist into seemingly impossible positions. When the camera shifts to above, Watson’s legs reach towards it. The shadow of the light fitting on the floor looks like another bug.

Watson is very insectile, although Kafka’s original German title has the vaguer translation of ‘bug’, and the author was insistent that an insect was not shown on the first edition cover. How ever you see him, Gregor doesn’t rail against what he has become but seems to be exploring it, trying to come to terms with it. On top of that is the sticky, black gunk that oozes from Watson’s mouth and that soon decorates the scene.

Pita doesn’t give much sense of Gregor’s frequent thinking of his family as in the book, although two duets do suggest he still feels, especially for his sister. The only member of the family who seems to care about what has happened (at first, anyway), she knocks up something in a blender for him to eat. He responds in an inventive duet that combines yet contrasts their different movement qualities. Later, Grete puts on a record and dances in a way that’s lyrical and smooth, yet also reminiscent of what her brother now is.

Later, when the Mother enters his room and faints at the sight of what he has become, Gregor caresses her body in his sticky arms. Feet become hands and toes fingers as he so carefully dances with her. That there is still feeling is for all to see.

Pita leaves the end vague. Not wanted, now even by Grete, Gregor disappears. Real or hallucinatory fantasy? Take your pick. As the dance and whole family scene flip between calm and troubled, I found myself imagining the reaction to events is probably not unlike any family’s where one member is suddenly changed by illness. And for all Watson’s superb dance, it is as much they who make Metamorphosis as he.