The Metamorphosis

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Five stars


Grand Theatre, Leeds

Four stars


As our theatres go into temporary closure, in line with government guidance, it seems appropriate to share with you, dear reader, two excellent new productions which will, one hopes, be gracing our stages again before too long. The first, The Metamorphosis, co-produced by Scottish touring company Vanishing Point, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre and Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione of Modena, Italy, is a work of absolute brilliance.

Based, ingeniously, but tremendously faithfully, upon Franz Kafka’s outstanding novella, the piece is as perfect a fit between a theatre director’s aesthetic and a writer’s narrative as I have witnessed in quite some time. Matthew Lenton, artistic director of Vanishing Point, has a very distinctive, poetic visual style. Sometimes that style, beautiful though it is, threatens to subsume the narrative content of his work, leaving him open to the suggestion that his output favours form over substance.

There can be no such complaints here. Lenton’s aesthetic seems almost tailor made for Kafka’s nightmarish story in which Gregor Samsa - a young worker trapped in dreary employment by his need to clear his father’s debt and sustain his family - famously awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect.

It is a tale full of metaphorical possibilities, from the Marxist analysis of alienated labour to psychoanalytical considerations of the impact of animal instincts upon Gregor’s still human mind. Lenton and associate director Joanna Bowman relate powerfully to these, and more, in a piece which, like Kafka’s story itself, straddles the material realities of our world and the surreal possibilities of a dream.

Updating Gregor’s job from travelling salesman to delivery cyclist is a masterstroke, as is splitting the playing of the protagonist between Sam Stopford (Gregor’s human mind) and Nico Guerzoni (whose insect Gregor speaks an Italian that meets the ears of Gregor’s family as animal gibberish). As in the novella, one is moved deeply by the efforts of Gregor’s loving sister Grete (Alana Jackson) to maintain a human contact with the person inside the huge, horrifying insect body.

All of this is imparted in a highly-stylised, resolutely theatrical aesthetics which is, thanks to designer Kenneth MacLeod, simultaneously bleak and beautiful. The screen separating Gregor’s room (front stage) from the family living room is blacked out or made transparent, according to the production’s requirements, by superb lighting designer Simon Wilkinson.

At times we listen in on the universally excellent cast as the family try to continue their lives in spite of Gregor’s condition. In other moments they are a silent presence, a tableau emphasising the insurmountable separation between them and Gregor.

Needless to say, this extraordinary stage work (which boasts resonating, atmospheric sound and music by Mark Melville) has poignant, almost premonitory significance to the strange and difficult times in which we find ourselves. I sincerely hope that, in just a few months from now, we will be applauding its humane insights, as we return to the nation’s playhouses.

From a first class new play to an impressively ambitious and brave new ballet. Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha, created for Leeds-based company Northern Ballet, is a thing of painful beauty.

Set in 19th-century Japan, the piece is resplendent in Christopher Oram’s sumptuous set and costume designs; which are, of course, inspired by the gorgeously distinctive, opulent-yet-minimalist visual aesthetics which are synonymous with The Land of the Rising Sun. The ballet tells the story of Okichi (danced with tremendous grace, poise and feeling by Minju Kang), who was sold to a geisha mother by her impoverished family as a very young child.

Alongside her friend Aiko (the splendid Sarah Chun), the young woman is trained to be a geisha (an esteemed entertainer, for the pleasure of wealthy men; as distinct from the oiran, the prized courtesans of 19th-century Japan). This subject matter places a responsibility on Tindall to address the appalling, structural misogyny of this social system. He does not shirk this responsibility.

In one scene, as Okichi is being attired for her new life as geisha to the local mayor, she is trapped, held tight in long, white silks. In another, after the mayor has gifted her to Townsend Harris (the first American Consul-General to Japan), we witness an agonising, powerful choreography representing Okichi’s neglect and physical abuse.

Despite the harrowing nature of the subject, the piece does have moments of levity. The star-spangled arrival of the US Navy, for instance, is bound to raise a wry smile.

Act 2 combines the aesthetics of temporal Japan with those of the spirit world. Spoiler alert: the distraught Okichi drowns herself (in a memorably distressing scene) at the end if the first act. The ballet does its supernatural scenes well, no doubt; although the ghostly aesthetics are too similar to Tim Burton’s visual palette for my taste.

Tindall’s marvellous, European-style choreography is flecked with Japanese references, while Alexandra Harwood’s superb musical score makes room for lovely moments of Japanese percussion and flute.

This stunning ballet is scheduled to play in Edinburgh in early May. If not then, let’s hope to see it in Scotland soon after.