There isn’t much to say about Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis that hasn’t already been said. Returning the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, this award-winning production is a dance-theatre imagining of Franz Kafka’s novella of the same name. I missed this production the first time, so was very interested in seeing it the second time around, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis © Tristram Kenton / ROH
Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis
© Tristram Kenton / ROH

The story tells the tale of Gregor Samsa, a man who unaccountably becomes transformed into an insect, and the resulting tensions this brings to his family. I was very impressed by the clarity of the emotions and intricate storyline, which called on the entire creative team to fully accomplish.

The stage is set in traverse, meaning there is audience seated on both sides of the stage, posing a unique challenge for the artists, and giving the audience a wide variety of viewpoints. Frank Moon’s atmospheric score wraps me into the story, and meshes perfectly with the action onstage. Similarly, Guy Hoare’s lighting design was understated and essential to the structure of the storyline, and now thinking back, I see the story in Hoare’s white washouts and the resolution in that striking amber glow.

The centrepiece of the show is Edward Watson’s portrayal of Gregor. This is the role that won him the 2012 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. His long sinewy legs and corded arms twitch and snap, fingers moving like exploring antennae. Twisting and writhing, his intelligent body finds odd and unnatural positions – hips splayed, he hikes his leg up and over his body, with his back foot propped on knee and toe knuckles. Spilling from his mouth, black syrup coats Watson’s body, changing the glint of human musculature to hard insect casing. Throughout the show, the amount of goo onstage, on Watson, on the walls/curtains/bed, increases, seeping into the storyline and reflecting the effect this metamorphosis has on the characters’ lives.

For me, this piece struck a strong balance between dance performance and linear storyline. Dance is extremely well-suited to capturing a moment in time – a physical representation of the body’s complex relationships with the world around it. When conveying a specific storyline, dance doesn’t work so well on its own, and requires the connective tissue of theatricality to lace the moments together. I found this with Pita’s The Metamorphosis. For example, the deterioration of Gregor’s relationship with his sister can be seen in the many dance-based scenes they share. However, the context of the storyline gives the moments collectively a much greater impact. Conversely, a purely theatrical representation of the insect-like man and his young sister would lack the depth of emotion attained through the physicality of dance.

I enjoyed watching how Pita and his dance artists negotiated this compromise, and I think the piece was so well-received in large part because it cleverly blended in equal parts accessible theatrical storyline and engaging movement. Pita’s The Metamorphosis was a thrilling piece of dance-theatre work that was at its best when the honest and virtuosic dancers delved deep into the emotional relationships of Kafka’s enigmatic tale. Dance-theatre is such an exciting medium and this particular performance shows the power and grace possible when combining movement and theatre.

****1