By rights, Matthew Lenton and Vanishing Point theatre company should have already opened their new production of The Metamorphosis in Italy prior to a short tour of Scotland that begins in Glasgow next week at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. As it is, the show’s run at the VIE Festival in Cesana in conjunction with their European partners, the Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione, had the plug pulled on it before anyone left Scotland.
The postponement of The Metamorphosis isn’t, however, an early casualty of Brexit, although such consequences are likely to affect international artistic exchanges soon enough. Rather, Vanishing Point have been grounded due to uncertainties surrounding the Coronavirus currently sweeping the globe, with the Italian government requesting the cancellation of all festivals in their country over the next few weeks as a precautionary measure.
All of which seems a strangely fitting back-story to Lenton and Vanishing Point’s new take on Franz Kafka’s seminal story about a young office worker who wakes up one morning to discover himself transformed into a giant insect. For Lenton, it’s been a long time coming.
“We talked about doing The Metamorphosis years ago,” he says. “I'd read it when I was younger, and I remember being weirdly underwhelmed by it. But we were talking to the Italian company who I’d worked with before on a version of 1984 about doing something else with them, and I thought, with the atmosphere and darkness of it, Metamorphosis really should be my cup of tea.”
Lenton’s response to Kafka’s story when he re-read it was a completely different experience.
“It made me think about what it must have been like to be Jewish in Germany before the Second World War,” he says, “when gradually you realise that something's happening that’s not only alienating you from society, but is making you an object of persecution because you are what you are. People are moved from their homes into ghettos, and you get to the point of absolute horror and isolation, where you realise that there is no way out. That’s what Gregor’s journey is like, and I started to think about how easy it is for people to become alienated, but also, I became more interested in how easy it is for everyone else to alienate and marginalise someone because of the differences of that person.
“The interesting thing about The Metamorphosis for me isn't the fact that Gregor’s metamorphosis has happened at the beginning. The real metamorphosis is what happens to everybody else around him in response to it. Gregor’s an insect, and it's not necessarily a problem at the beginning, He could be an insect that everyone cares for and goes, okay, that's different, let's try and deal with it, and be empathetic towards this thing.
“That sort of happens at the beginning, then gradually it changes until everyone's behaviour towards Gregor starts to become scarier, and gradually his world disappears and he ends up dying because of the way everyone else begins to treat him differently. That incremental transformation is the thing that's really interesting to me, how people go, okay I can deal with this, there's no problem. But then, for one reason or another, your behaviour towards someone starts to change until you find ways of excusing your behaviour, and at its worst, persecuting people.”
There are clear references to the current plight of refugees and asylum seekers here. This is likely to be heightened by having Gregor played by Italian actor Nico Guerzoni, whose dialogue in an otherwise English-speaking production will be in Italian. This should have different resonances depending on which country the show is being performed.
“When the family wake up and see Gregor, they see someone who's turned into a beetle, but they also see someone who's not from their country. In Italy, seeing the only actor speaking Italian gradually alienated by everybody else will be interesting, and here it's going to be the opposite, with the only person who doesn't speak English being the outsider.”
In this sense, The Metamorphosis addresses Vanishing Point’s very existence as an international company. As Lenton observes, “Doing The Metamorphosis now comes at a fascinating time, because we've just come out of the European Union at a time time we're collaborating with a company that's based in the European Union. So, for this show to happen, as well as this particular story to happen as an international co-production, and as a cultural collaboration, is really interesting. On one level, it's very much about celebrating internationalism, but it's also about exploring the tensions of internationalism.”
Coronavirus and Brexit aside, Lenton fully intends Vanishing Point to keep on evolving.
“It's always been really important to us that we that we work internationally, and that we're an international company based in Scotland. And I really hope that that that we’ll continue to be able to do that. Even though it becomes harder, and perhaps even because it's harder, it's an even better reason to try to celebrate internationalism, and hopefully not wake up one morning as a beetle. It always seems to be such a failure of the imagination to not be able to put yourself in the place of the other.”
Vanishing Point’s production of The Metamorphosis opens at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 10-21, then tours to the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh, April 1-4; Dundee Rep, April 9-11; Eden Court, Inverness, April 15-17. Metamorphosis Unplugged will tour later in the year.
The Herald, March 2nd 2020