Brighton Fringe 2018
Directed and designed by Sam Chittenden as well as written, Metamorphosis features carefully calibrated sonics. Simon Scardanelli’s sound design features – appropriately – Philip Glass’s post-minimalist Glassworks and Metamorphosis, two of Luciano Berio’s virtuosic solo Sequenzas – for viola and violin with their scurrying passages obviously suited. And Gorecki’s Third Symphony for a reason that’ll become clear. Jesse Payne assists Chittenden with lighting and technical support: it’s very minimal, featuring simple blackouts.
Different trains, different fates. Or are they? Certainly there’s two recognizable Sam Chittendens who’s emerging as both with a mesmeric voice and at least two distinct styles. Metamorphosis marks a complex advance: her characteristic non-linear narrative isn’t circular here, there’s a harrowing end in view. Girls go through a metamorphosis as equally profound as the anti-hero of Franz Kafka’s tale and never remarked on, from child to ‘voluptuous young woman’ only recognized by the wrong sort of man.
The astringencies of Chittenden’s contemporary work infuses her poetic solo piece. it’s her finest, certainly most profound theatre work yet. and it’s not told through Kafka’s narrative, but his sister, and the fictional Gregor Samsa’s sister’s voices.
Last year’s two-hander So You Say re-emerged at Shaftsbury Avenue’s Tristan Bates after its Fringe debut as an object lesson: how two lovers after fifteen years met and recall their relationship differently. The interplay’s crisp, snappy, playful, each protagonist challenging the other’s narrative. The miniature Moving Slowly featured a 1956 radio announcer and her double.
This wobbly doubleness inhabits Chittenden’s solo work too. Last year at the same Dukebox Underworlds, acted by Chittenden herself proved grounded not in the everyday sharp-shifting of So You Say but elaborated and allusive, dipped in the poetry and narrative of Rilke and other verse.
Chittenden’s choice of poet Anne Carson’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone at the NVT last October confirms her centre of gravity and this is where Kafka’s Metamorphosis is dragged to. A prose work, a narrative, it’s co-opted into something else in another Sweet Venues Dukebox Different Theatre production, directed by Chittenden and starring Heather Rose Andrews.
Like So You Say though and unlike Underworlds, here’s nothing to distract here. No set and only a few props, a shawl and suitcase. Simon Scardanelli’s sound design features – appropriately – Philip Glass’s post-minimalist Glassworks and Metamorphosis, two of Luciano Berio’s virtuosic solo Sequenzas – for viola and violin with their scurrying passages obviously suited. And Gorecki’s Third Symphony for a very good reason that’ll become clear. Jesse Payne assists Chittenden with lighting and technical support: it’s very minimal, featuring simple blackouts.
Andrews is consummate in her register of mature, childish adolescent, old woman and indeed other adult voices. With a clear rationale and playful, never parodic inflection one way or another, she draws in that other metamorphosis.
Ottla ‘the dearest by far’ and youngest of Kafka’s sisters, was the one who encouraged him, Her fate and that of her sisters is announced on the programme. That of Grete Samsa is left to Chittenden herself who imagines Grete’s life parallel to and subsequent to her unlucky brother’s.
The sibling doubtless between them, signified by the mirror Grete removes to stop Gregor’s self-inflicted torments as a transformed insect, is art of Chittenden’s verbal webbing. ‘Insect/incest’ Grete announces at one pint, more of identification than anything else, but Grete’s resentment at being the one to feed and clean Gregor and the filth in his room plays out. Empathy or disgust, both or a clever amalgam that’s really about self-realisation? Grete in fact emerges as both irascible and devoted, wishing Gregor to die for selfish ad selflesse, and because of the bond Ksoon becomes a larger things ‘a dirty jigsaw’ as Gregor himself can be heard thwacking away with one of his proboscis in a ‘soft percussion’. There’s so many of these tropes it’s impossible to catch them all, but Chittenden’s language always rich is narrative-directed, never a luxury in itself.
Grete sasahys between older self and child, and finally burgeoning adolescent exploring her own sexuality. That she’s not allowed to do this uninterrupted by predatory lodgers including one Mr Fischer – lodgers making up the income Gregor’s loss if it entailed – fillets one strand. And her father’s coldness behind his newspaper, and her mother’s denial only slightly ameliorated by her realising that her daughter’s undergone a horrific experience merely extends to making her less pretty and accessible in future. But Chittenden uniquely explores Kafka’s unstated inflections of how Gregor’s perceived. Those reasons Gregor couldn’t take up better employment embody that difference already stamped on the whole family, that of being ‘other’. The clarity of this becomes ever more an inevitable tread. But will Grete’s fate parallel that of others, even that of her double, Otla Kafka?
At one point Grete projects herself as an old woman in her eighties perhaps. The reality of marriage ‘a quite honest man’ as opposed to the ‘honest man’ type foisted upon her by cold parents, has meant a daughter. Chittenden’s description of this a’ scribble of chalk’ and the way her daughter’s vertebrae launch themselves inside her, is unforgettable: both affirming and poignant.
Chittenden’s Grete has an answer to why those faces and insect-like proboscis should act as prophesy. And her indictment of the real monsters. We’re played out with that Gorecki Symphony No. 3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’. It sets an incarceration in Poland during a traumatic period. As it happened, the eighteen-year-old woman who scratched those words on a prison wall survived. Richness of sound neatly contrasts with set and lighting, though I wonder if the latter might be explored a little further. But rightly, nothing distracts visually from Andrews’ complete embodiment.
This is a first-rank piece of storytelling, enacted by Andrews with lithe and wry physicality: legs sprawled up in the air, a terror at the green light under the door, a hunched up child with cramps, a burgeoning eroticism, an ancient woman, a girl undergoing an appalling ordeal flung into corners, a downright adult sitting, or indeed standing on judgement. A middle-aged woman with a suitcase and bundle. And the kinship of Grete and Otla. Most of all Andrews’ voice registers each character, each age with a quicksilver clarity that leaves no room for doubt as to when she is, as well as who.
If you decide on one storytelling piece of theatre in this half of the Fringe, I doubt you’ll do better than experience this.