At home with Kafka's vision

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 1997, 12:00am

Hong Kong performing artists cannot seem to get enough of Franz Kafka's surreal classic novel Metamorphosis, in which the main character - Gregor - wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant beetle.

Many local theatre companies have staged their own adaptations of the work in the past decade, including Sand & Bricks, which presented Metamorphosis on three occasions - in 1988, 1994 and 1995.

Today, Theatre du Pif premiers its version at the Cultural Centre and newly founded Theatre Action will present Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's novel early next month.

Some artists see the bizarre Kafka-esque world an apt metaphor for the territory.

'Maybe it is because I am here in Hong Kong, I really sense in some ways the life of Gregor, getting up at five every morning to make money and then to come back to look after his old dad and mum and be the provider,' says Sean Curran, who is co-directing the Theatre du Pif production.

'In some ways, we try to comment a little on the way Hong Kong is. We try to show, through some scenes, the competition and violence inherent in business, how people would cut each other's throat to make a deal, as it were.

'I hope people can identify with that.' Kwong Wai-lap, who directed Sand & Bricks' Metamorphosis in 1994 and 1995, says the play is a popular one locally because Kafka's story mirrors the 'Hong Kong situation'.

He points out parallels between Gregor's predicament and the territory's uncertain political future.

Kwong says: 'Back in 1988, when we staged the first of the trilogy, Gregor was an idealist. He was also like many of us, who did not want to get up and go to work in the mornings.' But why did he turn into an insect? 'In the trilogy of Metamorphosis, the change signifies alienation because Hong Kong society has no room for idealists but pragmatists,' Kwong says.

'Also in the 1988 production the lodgers in the story were three Mandarin-speakers. They were outsiders, mainland Chinese. Their squabbling symbolised the power struggle in China.

'We conveyed that on to a Hong Kong stage. These lodgers were pressuring the family with their rules and telling them what to do.' Then in the 1994 and 1995 production the metamorphosis itself changed form: the lodgers became Canadian returnees who wanted to do business with China.

'These are opportunists who are really the greatest threat [to Hong Kong],' he says.

Kwong adds that the theme of 'change' is prominent in local movies, theatre and television drama series, and regarded a positive force for good. 'By 1994, change took on a new meaning as a form of alienation. A larva could turn either way, a butterfly or a harmful insect. People also realised at the time there are things that couldn't change.' Curran, who came to the territory three years ago, says his play (which is in Cantonese and English) is apolitical and closer to the original novel in examining the theme of alienation.

'How you deal with loneliness and with people who are not, or don't seem to be, successful in society, the ones who don't come up to what is expected of them?' he asks.

'That is not just with the society but family. [Gregor's family] also rejected him because he was no longer what they wanted and expected him to be, which is the provider of the family.' Curran also lays considerable stress on violence, saying the play contains 'not a lot of pure violence but I think there is an undercurrent of violence all the time like in Kafka's work'.

'There is always a fear and oppression,' he says. 'Personally, I feel there is a lot of violence in this society. There is also a sense of uncertainty, maybe, in a political context. Since I have been here, I do feel there is a sense of fear: what has the future got to hold? 'In Hong Kong, everyone hopes that everything will be all right after 1997, but there is still an uncertainty, we don't know what is ahead.' Mike Ingham at Theatre Action has opted for a more physical theatrical interpretation of Berkoff's Metamorphosis adaptation. This will be the group's debut.

Both Ingham and Curran have adopted a more stylised approach to acting.

'This is a stylised production, it is not a naturalistic style of theatre at all. We'll introduce some Chinese opera elements, or techniques. The bug is played by a woman, which is very common in Chinese opera,' Ingham says.

'There are a lot of mime and movements so it is very pictorial, but also it has a very strong text.' The point of his production is not to give general or simple interpretations of Kafka's work, though the themes of the family and dehumanisation are clear.

'There is a story to tell: the Berkoff text, the way we present it on stage, mediates the original story but doesn't explain it exactly,' Ingham says.

'It does not explain it exactly it leaves a lot of work for the audience.

'There are associations and connotations about the movements that we do and the text itself, there is significance there, but they are open to variations. The point of Kafka is that he is very opaque in meaning.

'But why did [Gregor] turn into a bug? We don't know that.' So, will Metamorphosis continue to be a metaphor for Hong Kong? 'After all, this is an overseas play applied to the Hong Kong situation. How many more times can it be staged?' Kwong asks.

'I am sure metamorphosis is not the only metaphor that can symbolise the situation here.' Metamorphosis by Theatre du Pif (Cantonese and English), Studio Theatre, Cultural Centre, May 22-26, $110 and $80. Metamorphosis by Theatre Action (English), June 12-14, 8pm, Fringe Club, $130