Reimagining a classic for today

MORE than a century ago, the dystopian Czech writer Franz Kafka created one of the most frightening and powerful stories ever told – Metamorphosis, the tragedy of an ordinary man who turns into a giant beetle. Now the adventurous Frantic Assembly theatre company has turned it into a play, coming to Bristol Old Vic from 10th to 20th January.

The story has been adapted by the poet Lemn Sissay and is directed by Scott Graham, who originally declined the suggestion: “Why would I want to go anywhere near it? It comes with so much baggage and so much expectation,” he said.

Everyone thinks they know Kafka’s 1915 novella, which tells of Gregor Samsa, a weary travelling salesman and sole breadwinner in his debt-ridden family, who wakes up one morning to find that he has been turned into a giant beetle. Confined to his room, Gregor becomes completely reliant on the family that once relied on him.

It’s been described as the best horror story ever written, and its influence can be found in popular culture from video games to the Rolling Stones’ 1975 album, Metamorphosis, which has a cover image of the band members’ human features replaced by bug heads. There have been movies, operas and theatre productions, including Steven Berkoff’s famed 1969 physical theatre show.

Graham and his team have reimagined it as a tale of a family under pressure  which is crushed by external economic forces  and end up crushing each other. Lemn Sissay describes it as “a story about a family with a big secret locked in one of its rooms. The change that happens to Gregor exposes the flaws and fissures and insecurities that already exist in the family. There are so many different tensions already in play long before Gregor wakes up as a bug.”