Monday, 20 April 2020

BALLET REVIEW: The Metamorphosis - The Royal Opera House, London.

This is an online viewing of the 2011 production by The Royal Ballet, staged at London's Royal Opera House, of the dance-theatre piece The Metamorphosis., with choreography and direction by Arthur Pita.

Like many other companies, streaming of past shows /performances during these strange times of coronavirus lockdown, has taken the place of live theatregoing. It is by no means an adequate substitute, but it is a compromise that we are making until we are able to return to comparative normality.

When I saw that it was The Royal Ballet company performing this adaptation of Franz Kafka's famous novella, I thought, quite wrongly, that I would be watching a ballet. Ballets are graceful and beautiful, and even contemporary ballet hardly ever descends into the dark territory that this production did. But that isn't all, for this was actually not a ballet at all, at least not in any conventional sense. It was a piece of theatre which used primarily the medium of movement to convey the narrative. I use the word 'movement' here too, for that in the main was what it was.. choreographed and danced movement, but movement all the same. The performers were actors first and dancers second in this production, and as such, exceptional and highly talented performers were needed to be able to carry this story off.. and they were found, and did not disappoint.

Kafka's story is one of psychologically frightening proportions., and although isn't what Hollywood would have us believe 'Horror' to be, it is horrific and frightening in a very real sense. Gregor Samsa has a mundane office job and his quotidien routine is predictable and monotonous. He is however, predisposed with an ominous feeling that he is not the same as everyone else, there is something a little different about him, even if neither he nor anyone else can put their finger on it. Then, one morning, without warning he awakes to find he has been transformed into an insect (spider?). In Kafka's writing, he deliberately makes it oblique as to whether or not the metamorphosis is actual or the product of some kind of dementia.. ie: did Gregor Samsa truly turn into the insect or did something in his brain snap and make him believe with all his soul that he was that insect. This is explored cleverly in The Royal Ballet's interpretation too, and leaves us, the audience, even at the end, uncertain which it was.

Simon Daw's clinical white set, with just a few mundane colours for certain props or clothing bringing about the only colour to grace the set was a stroke of genius and worked superbly. Gregor's changing required black gloopy liquid, and lots of it, which painted the set and everything it touched with a streak of black "blood". The darker the narrative became so did the set. This was subtely mirrored too in Guy Hoare's immaculate lighting design. The stage was in three parts and the lighting was bright and clear and clean to start, but seemed to become progressively dimmer as the play progressed.

In fact, there was no let up, no lightness at all save for some very brief moments of relief: a moment of joy as we see Gregor's younger sister Greta transform from novice and clumsy ballet dancer to graceful swan; or when the pragmatic and no-nonsense cleaning lady comes and sorts the Samsas' lives out for them. But even when they are visited by three Jewish businessmen who want to see Greta dance and they end up all dancing around the kitchen to a klezmer tune, we didn't laugh, we couldn't, we knew this was only a momentary respite, and served only to make Gregor's and his family's fate all the more tragic. 

Even the music that is used to underscore the whole production was perfectly thought out. Frank Moon's original score matched the moods of the onstage action perfectly, moving from upbeat Czech style folk rhythms, to hauntingly eerie vocals during the actual metamorphosis and beyond. 

Laura Day (Greta), Nina Goldman (Mother) and Neil Reynoilds (Father), were superb. Indeed, they went through their own mini-metamorphosis in this production as they had to come to terms with and carry on their lives with a brother / son who had turned into a grotesque instect. Greta blending black mulch for him to eat was done with a certain business-like practicality. It's what we do in times of crisis, adapt to the situation and make believe it is normal. It was the cleaning maid though (Bettina Carpi) who was the driving force in the progression of the Samas' lives and she the one who gave Gregor a way out.

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa was spellbindingly good. His transformation was a monstrous and horrifying transmogrification, legs doing things that arms would normally do and vice versa, and every muscle was tense and prone. His excellent measured performance never once became a man pretending to be an insect, instead we all completely believed that he was the insect, and as his body became blacker and blacker with more of this slimy ink, the eyes became our point of focus, and his eyes were unwavering, staring, almost accusatory, and yet, behind the glare, a hint perhaps of self-recognition, a knowledge that he was once or maybe still is a man, Gregor Samsa. 

Pita's direction had the cast speak a few lines from time to tim,. rarely as a dialogue, but just as a line interjected here and there to add another layer to this already heavily textured piece. The lines were always in Czech, and no translation was offered. The translations were unnecessary. The meanings were obvious. Three other performers were used to portray small cameo roles within the production, and all told this was one of the darkest, most truthful, and finely nuanced portrayals of Kafka's seminal work I have ever seen. It wasn't an enjoyable watch, but it wasn't supposed to be. It was the kind of production that you just have to see through to its conclusion even though you would, if you were able, stand up and walk away.... chilling, mesmeric, bold, and brilliant!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 19/4/20

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