Emotional Honesty

Lyric Hammersmith and Vesturport bring their acrobatic and daring
adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis back to the theatre for 2013.

Good theatre is always physical. After all, physicality informs so much in theatre; it can determine character and emotion, and even a lack of movement is a significant physical choice. So the term physical theatre can be somewhat misleading. Most people agree that it refers to theatre that uses primarily physical means to tell a story. The latter part of this description is very important; without narrative and character, physical theatre risks moving into spectacle and the demonstration of these skills for their sake alone.

It seems as though perhaps the complexity of the story and the complexity of the physical movements exist in negative correlation; the more advanced and wild the physical aspect of the performance, the more contained and basic the story must be. Of course, this is not always the case; Frantic Assembly’s Beautiful Burnout tells the story of five hopeful young boxers and their lives, interlacing the stories and the motivations of the characters. The main difference here is that the story being told is already one about physicality – the life the characters lead is one immersed in physical choices.

Another example of a complex story told well through physical theatre is Gísli Örn Garðarsson and David Farr’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The story of Metamorphosis follows the transformation of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one day to find he has been transformed into a vermin, often understood to be a cockroach or bug. This alteration necessarily affects the family dynamic, and his family’s reactions move through revulsion to sympathy and finally resentment. The novella was first published in 1915 and Garðarsson and Farr developed their adaptation in 2006.

Following sell-out performances in 2006 and 2008, the production returns to the Lyric Hammersmith at the beginning of 2013. David Farr is a director, playwright and current Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Gísli Örn Garðarsson is an Icelandic actor and director whose acclaimed company Vesturport has previously presented exhilarating versions of Romeo and Juliet and Faust at the Young Vic. His production of Romeo and Juliet featured dramatic circus skills and contemporary love songs whilst adhering to the original text and was hailed as a success by reviewers.

Garðarsson agrees that incorporating physical aspects into theatre can be a challenge: “It’s a delicate process and that’s why it’s not always successful. Often ideas can get in the way of moving the stories forward.” Garðarsson comes from a gymnastic background, having trained in gymnastics for 15 years before attending the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, and he also mentions the very practical considerations of making good physical theatre. As a trained gymnast, he has the physical capability and understanding necessary to create quite advanced work but states: “It’s one thing being able to do it physically and it’s another thing being able to rig it. It’s such a complicated practical thing; how do you make one person jump from here to here and do this in between?”

Naturally, he works in close collaboration with the set designer, Börkur Jónsson, to ensure that the set supports the acrobatic ideas but he also allows the physical components of his productions to evolve honestly from the source material. It is this approach to the work which prevents the gymnastic elements from overwhelming the story or hindering the narrative. Garðarsson explains: “I don’t really think in terms of ‘How can I make this acrobatic or gymnastic?’ but more ‘How can I use this space?’ ”

With this production, that space takes shape as a stunning, split-level set for which Jónsson received a 2006 Evening Standard Award nomination. The furniture sits on the wall in Gregor’s room and the whole room is flipped on its side, including Gregor himself. The production team thought that to turn Gregor upside down was a neat solution to demonstrating the way his world has turned upside down. Garðarsson says that he arrived at this idea and that of the set first and the rest followed organically: “We went through the whole story with that concept and set in mind, and from there we worked out the adaptation and David Farr went off and wrote the words to it and then we staged it.”

He makes it sound easy but the rehearsal process for a production such as this is, of course, complex and filled with problem-solving. With a set of that scale, there are a lot of practical factors that can’t really be taken into consideration until you’re working actively with it: “You can try and envisage things but you can never be sure, so you build it with the best intentions and then, of course, there’s a lot to be discovered when it’s up and running.”

Garðarsson thinks the production hasn’t changed much since that original performance: “Of course these things adapt. By doing them again and again you discover new things, but in essence it’s the same production. It’s the same setting, it’s the same music by Nick Cave, it’s the same adaptation; it hasn’t changed in any dramatic way. Some of the climbing on the wall may have become a bit more advanced and dangerous.”

The music that Garðarsson refers to is an original score created for the production by world-renowned musician Nick Cave and his long-time collaborator Warren Ellis. Metamorphosis is underscored by Cave’s trademark haunting work which Garðarsson claims works in great harmony with the performance: “Their music is very theatrical: it’s dramatic, it’s visceral and it has an old eerie atmosphere to it that lends itself very well to classical storytelling.” The music offers a good contrast to the inherent absurdity and natural humour of the play, operating as the dramatic vehicle when the play itself is often very comic.

It might seem strange that Garðarsson refers to his production as “classical storytelling” when there is so much that is contemporary about the adaptation. However, it comes back to the importance of narrative in physical productions – for Garðarsson, his loyalty lies with the theatre and with serving the stories: “Occasionally I bring this element of gymnastics, being a gymnast myself.” His motivation for introducing an acrobatic concept into a story is always emotion. Tying physical movement to emotion in this way makes it possible to play around without showing off or undermining the story: “A lot of it is connected to emotion. When a person flies the audience understands that this feeling can be so great it makes you feel like you’re flying. It can help heighten emotions that are happening and that’s an exciting thing to play with.”

This emotional honesty is what all great physical theatre explores; Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh Theatre, RashDash, Vesturport and Ockham’s Razor are all companies that manage to use physicality to dramatise emotion. Despite this, Garðarsson still believes it is a niche area of theatre: “I think it will always be a select few companies because it’s a craft. You don’t learn it from reading a book. I did gymnastics for 15-20 years and it took my whole life to get the hang of it.” He agrees that, 10 years ago, “there was definitely a movement of circus awareness and trying to incorporate it into the theatre but I don’t think it’s been as successful as people thought it would be. 10 years ago, people probably thought that by now you’d see a lot more of this.”

That may well be true; perhaps physical theatre and circus-inspired narrative has not been embraced wholeheartedly by the theatre community as quickly as people anticipated. However, there is still much more work of this nature now than there was then, and new groups and companies are constantly springing up, inspired by what they see of people such as Vesturport and Frantic Assembly. With top quality productions such as Metamorphosis exciting audiences, it’s hard to see the trend staying niche for long.

Metamorphosis ran at the Lyric Hammersmith from 17 January until 9 February 2013. For more information and tickets please visit www.lyric.co.uk.

Bryony Byrne