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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre January-February 2013

Previously seen in 2006 and 2008, with world tours in between, this Lyric co-production with Iceland's Vesturport returns for what will probably not be a farewell run. Always intriguing, occasionally self-indulgent, it is likely to impress you more in pieces than as a whole. 

While the best-known previous staging of Kafka's fable (Man wakes up one morning transformed into a bug; he and the world try to cope), Steven Berkoff's, went for a highly-stylised expressionistic nightmare style, star/co-adaptor/co-director (with the Lyric's David Farr) Gisli Orn Gardarsson puts the nightmare in a more realistic setting and lets the infection gradually spread. 

The Samsa household is a solid two-level set whose one abnormality is that Gregor's room is shifted ninety degrees the back wall is the floor, with furniture hanging from it so that we look down on the awakening bug-man. So from the start, Orn Gardarsson's Gregor is literally askew, with artfully hidden hand- and footholds allowing the actor to scamper over every surface of the room, the character apparently unaware he's doing anything odd. 

Meanwhile downstairs the family stiff, in-denial father (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), torn between disgust and maternal feelings mother (Kelly Hunter) and first loving and then most violently rejecting sister (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) try to lead naturalistic lives, startled by and resisting abrupt flashes of choreographed acrobatics or slow motion. 

The adaptation's most intriguing innovation is shifting the focus from Gregor to the family, making it less about the psychological and emotional experience of being an outcast than about the life-souring effects of a shameful family secret. 

That's what makes the mother's internal conflict and the sister's hardening more central and more moving than in the novella, especially since the exact nature of Gregor's transformation is never specified, just that he is something horrible and disgusting. 

As an actor Orn Gardarsson makes no attempt (as Berkoff did) to depict bug-ness beyond the gravity-defying crawling around the walls, rather showing a man sinking into himself in isolation and shame. 

The other three, along with Jonathan McGuinness as a couple of outsiders, balance a bit uncomfortably between the new psychological depth of their characterisations and the abrupt incursions of non-naturalistic direction, which are, paradoxically, some of the most evocative moments. 

And that is the strongest impression of this dramatisation an intriguing shift of focus from the original and a sprinkling of strong visual and theatrical moments while the whole never quite hangs together.

Gerald Berkowitz

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