Edinburgh Fringe 2009
As the audience arrives, the (surprisingly large) cast is already hanging, twitching and looming on the scaffolding that dominates Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Kafka’s classic. As Gregor hangs upside down, his coat tails are suspended beneath him, looking like the armoured shell of a beetle, a neat forewarning of the horrors awaiting him. The rest of the cast are grinning and gurning at us as we find our way. Before we find our seats, we find that we’re unsettled.
The evening begins like some kind of grotesque circus, the father as ringleader, and while this reviewer isn’t always a fan of ‘choralising’ dialogue – dividing out the lines to a roughly equal amount of actors – here it is fairly effective, and in any case, doesn’t last throughout the entire evening. More, it heightens the suggestion that Gregor’s torment will be some kind of cruel joke, an entertainment.
As the play continues, you’re aware that the non-speaking cast can’t keep still. This isn’t a criticism: you really get the sense of infestation, an itchy, buggy atmosphere as Gregor’s situation worsens, in what is for you, as well as the characters, a slowly more cramped atmosphere.
Berkoff’s take on family secrets is long beloved of student theatre groups, and how successful a production is depends largely on that groups commitment to it, since there’s arguably little elbow room to truly put your own stamp on it (otherwise, you’d do your own adaptation of Kafka’s original). The trick is not to assume that Berkoff means ‘shouty’ and over-played, rather to play it entirely straight, no matter now grotesque and horrible. This is the real strength of Cambridge University ADC, who have all the skill of a well oiled clock, full of lithe energy, not a move or sound wasted.
Thanks to the decidedly non-Fringe like weather, Father’s make-up begins to run, creating in him an impression of the type of ink blot images that, appropriately enough, the group are using to sell the production. It hints are the worsening psychological health of the family, as they struggle to decide what to do with their dirty little secret. There’s a powerful moment when the family are represented as an obscene puppet show, parroting words that they can’t truly believe in.
Occasionally, members of the group crawl out into the audience, festering behind, underneath, and next to you, reminding that this is a voyeur’s story, that we may watch in horror, but we can’t claim that we would behave in any other way.
A creeping, powerful production that truly gets under your skin.