Sunday, September 28, 2014

'Metamorphosis / Oluwa O!' at the Barons Court Theatre, 26th September 2014

As Abeni awakes one morning from restless dreams, she finds herself transformed in her bed into a monstrous, verminous insect-like creature. Given its transformational themes its appropriate that Kafka's absurdist novella is an extremely plastic text, able to be remoulded whilst maintaining its thematic core of sickness and subsequent alienation. This adaptation, devised and directed by Nick Pelas, relocates events to a Yoruba village in Nigeria and features an all-female cast, though the familiar beats of Kafka's tale remain the same.

So, Abeni (Alice Fofana), a hard-working saleswoman is turned into a giant locust. She hides in her room, disgusted and terrified by her new body as her family knock on her bedroom door, confused as to why she hasn't left for work. Unfamiliar with the current situation and unable to speak she cannot leave the bed or open the door. Her mother and sister initially assume she's simply being lazy, but inhuman sounds from beyond the door lead to them to conclude that she's fallen ill.

Soon her supervisor arrives, angry that Abeni hasn't turned up for work. Struggling to open the door with crude mandibles, Abeni finally emerges to apologise for her tardiness. Her family and the supervisor are horrified by her insectile body and guttural squawkings, her mother faints and Abeni is driven back into her room. The rest of the play is concerned with how to deal with this, mixed with scenes of Abeni's tormented loneliness.

This story is framed as a fable being told by the sinister Keyefi (Patricia Parkin), a juju woman who takes a sadistic delight in recounting the miseries of Abeni and her family. With villainous cackles she gleefully breaks the fourth wall, getting right up in the audience's faces as she carefully enunciates Kafka's prose.

The West African setting proves to be fertile ground for Metamorphosis: Kafka's magical realism seamlessly slotting into West African cultural fears of witchcraft. Abeni's family theorise that someone has placed a curse on them through the wood in the furniture and plead with God to release them from their torment ("Oluwa O!" translating to "O Lord! in Yoruba). Fear of black magic allows the family to shift blame onto Abeni for her transformation, familial bonds quickly dissolving as they selfishly search for a way out of this predicament.

Though Pelas cannot have planned it, the obvious current reading is to see Abeni's transformation as symbolic of the Ebola epidemic currently raging in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinee and (apparently) in Nigeria. Nightmarish reports speak of families abandoning their infected relatives in the streets or imprisoning them in their rooms, terrified of catching the disease themselves. In the later stages of Ebola, the victim's internal organs begin to liquify, spilling from they body as they slowly bleed out.

It's a horrific way to die, a body horror twinned with Abeni's nauseating insectile carapace. Seeing the family battling between their responsibilities to Abeni as sister and daughter and their own fears mirrors the torment being experienced by thousands of West African families this very second. At the conclusion of the play Pelas explains that he views his adaptation as shining a light on mental illness, though to my mind viewing it through the prism of the Ebola epidemic gives the play far more punch.

The adaptation is aided by the claustrophobic, low-ceilinged space underneath the Curtain's Up pub. Audience proximity prevents us from emotionally distancing ourselves from the action and creates a subtle back-and-forth between actors and audience that ever-so-gently implicates us in Abeni's suffering.

Her transformation is accomplished by Fofano being joined by Charron Scerra as 'Locusta pardalina', the two slowly contorting their bodies together to give the impression of a multi-limbed, spasmodically moving creature with creepily ill-defined personal boundaries. Watching these two move is faintly hypnotic. Their black-clad bodies glide over one another, hands blindly feeling their way about the space like antenna.

Although our sympathies naturally lie with Abeni, it's all too easy to understand her family's disgust with what she's become. Both actors are excellent physical performers, but it's Scerra who really impresses as the silent, insectile personality. With a white mask concealing her features and braids dangling over her face like antenna she emanates a disturbing mixture of the alien and erotic.

The rest of the family play things a touch too broad; particularly Verona Rose at Yetunde, who approaches the mother less as if she's trapped in a disturbing body horror and more as if she's in a slapstick farce. And though Kafka's novella is hardly a lengthy read, the play's hour-long runtime compresses events so much that familiarity with the source material is all but required to understand what's going on. Late references to lodgers being driven away will make sense to readers of the book, but mean little to anyone else.

Similarly, the motivations of Abefe (Lola May), Abeni's younger sister are overly condensed. In Kafka's original she's a talented violinist whose ambitions are thwarted by her elder brother's transformation; without his financial support she won't be able to attend a musical school and thus grows to despise him. Here she's rendered as a shallow modern teenager, so amoral she snaps a selfie with her dead sister's body. This drains the character of complexity and reduces her to simple stereotype.

By far the most mystifying change is the decision to give Kafka's story a happy ending. Frankly, "It was all a dream" is way, way beyond cliché. The closing scenes of Abeni back to normal and happily hugging her family as life returns to normal is a disservice to Kafka. It's a bizarre mis-step in what was, up to very end of the show, a very careful, intelligently judged reimagining.

It's probably best to pretend the last few minutes of the show didn't happen, as what preceded was decent stuff. A show focussed on the effects of debilitating, terrifying sickness within a family is fortuitously timed, those in the audience who follow current events in West Africa will find much to chew on.

Metamorphosis / Oluwa O! has its last night at the Barons Court Theatre tonight.

Many thanks to Views from the Gods for the ticket.  Review reproduced here by permission.

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