Wednesday 13 February 2008

Kafka and empathy

I trekked down to the Liverpool Playhouse at the weekend to see a production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It was strikingly theatrical.

Samsa’s change, or rather his having already changed, was brilliantly signalled by just three things:
1. rents in his suit, as though he no longer had human shape;
2. the actor moving about the set like a modern free rock climber; and
3. his bedroom, which formed the upper tier of a two floor set, being orthogonal to the plane of the set so that the back of the stage was the floor, his bed stood vertically as far as the audience was concerned etc.

The irritating peculiarity of his family, suggested in part by rapid transitions from emotion to comedy, was underlined by an occasional habit of standing in a line, declaiming to the audience. The final scene which reflects this passage…

Then all three left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city. The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun. Leaning back comfortably in their seats, they talked to each other about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation these were not at all bad, for the three of them had employment, about which they had not really questioned each other at all, which was extremely favourable and with especially promising prospects. The greatest improvement in their situation at this moment, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent a smaller and cheaper apartment but better situated and generally more practical than the present one, which Gregor had found. While they amused themselves in this way, it struck Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, how their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman. Growing more silent and almost unconsciously understanding each other in their glances, they thought that the time was now at hand to seek out a good honest man for her. And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.

... was gestured at by a gloriously lit, flower filled walk in a park, strangely bathetic, with a swelling Nick Cave song.

I mention all this because of the following phenomenon. I would have thought that the artifice of the production (required in part because it is hardly a story for naturalistic depiction) would have got in the way of an empathic response. But within the space of 90 minutes, the norms and traditions of that way of going on began to feel natural and both the cruelty and yet subsequent seemingly naive optimism of the final scene was strangely affecting. Interpretation, in an emotional as well as intellectual sense, doesn’t seem to need that much commonality, after all.