Adaptations of novels or
stories often suffer in a different media, and
adaptations of famous works suffer from over-reverence.
Compare the tame filming of the novels of Graham Greene
with the film script written by Greene himself (The Third Man).
Berkoff understands the essence of the story and the
power of the medium. Berkoff´s adaptations and direction
are spectacular theatre.
In the Penal Colony
My principle is
this - Guilt is never to be doubted
An explorer (the outsider) is given a
demonstration of a torture instrument by the officer. The
prisoner, who cannot speak their language, watches on as
the officer describes with pride the instrument that he
and the former Commandant developed. He points out the needles and the mechanisms
for removing the blood as the needles pierce the skin.
And the needles are designed to carve words on the body
of the prisoner. This would take twelve hours and the
prisoner is able to watch the text being carved as skin
is ripped apart by mechanical fury, and slowly the words
take form and he understands why he is being tortured.
The officer is the last of
his breed. The new commander is not in favour of the
instrument and spare parts are hard to find. He fears he
will no longer be able to carry out his duties. A
powerful Kafka piece adapted well by Berkoff. Photo
(detail) by Cordelia Weedon from playbook.
curious how one plucks shreds of comfort even from
the fact that I am now centre of attention gave me no
small tingle of comfort
What do Roman Polanski, Tim Roth, Steven
Berkoff and Mikhail Baryshnikov have in common?
There have all played Gregor Samsa in Berkoff´s
adaptation of Kafka´s novel. The play is visually
stunning as the actor/beetle crawls and writhes in a
metal frame, something from a school playground,
symbolising his multi facetted body. Berkoff says "what it did for me was to
allow me the scope to explore, experiment and extend my
vision and, finally, to be responsible for my own
I saw it in The Czech Republic, in a theatre
close to one of the many Prague houses Kafka lived in.
The writing, both language and pace, match the visual
In Kafka´s tale "as Gregor Samsa awoke
one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself
transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect". Just as Gregor´s emotions and movements go
from those of a human to those of an insect, so the
family move from horror and sympathy to ultimate betrayal
either by violence (the father throwing an apple which
lodges into Samsa´s body) or to the harder betrayal by
Samsa´s loving sister who initially was the only one
prepared to help him and feed him. The play ends as the
sister emerges into womanhood with a bright future, and
Samsa is dead. There have been a number of metamorphoses.
Berkoff´s play uses mime. The family often
close together and take the form of a giant insect. The
stage is bare but for the metal frame, lighting gives the
effect of inside and outside Gregor´s room.
One of Berkoff´s best adaptations. In
Meditations on Metamorphosis
Berkoff writes about the production in Japan. This book
is recommended if you have seen the play as it gives many
insights into the staging and the subtleties of the six
characters. Berkoff has also recorded the Kafka
story (rather than Berkoff´s adaptation) on
cassette. Photo (detail) Martha Swope from
Meditations, Berkoff quoted from Meditations.
watch part of Metamorphosis on the download page
sense of pain...he deduces he is alive
stop placed upside down
doesn't know the law yet he claims he is innocent
of you, father, I lose all self-confidence and exchange
it for an infinite sense of guilt
There must be some arguments in my favour that have been
Wait! Where is my judge? Whom I have never seen.
Joseph K is charged with a crime and brought
to trial, but he never finds out the charges and sinks
under helplessness of not knowing.
Berkoff was teaching at the Webber Douglas
Academy of Dramatic Art and needed a piece for twenty
students. So he turned to Kafka's novel and
workshopped it. Berkoff says "Kafka expressed
me as I expressed Kafka. His words stung and hung in my
brain". In the premiere in the Oval House, London
1970, Berkoff played the role of the painter Titorelli
"thank you very much. I got stuck inside a
self-portrait". Bill Stewart was Joseph K.
In the National Theatre version Berkoff was again
Titorelli, and Alan Perrin played Joseph K.
"It was eight o'clock/ the city came to
life/ Someone must have been lying about Joseph K:"
and so K finds himself arrested and awaiting trial but
has no idea why. And K will never find out why, he sinks
deeper and deeper and flails trying to escape. The play
does convey the doom, but does it with great humour and
flair, mime and acting, making the contrast the greater.
Berkoff´s staging uses frames and a rope and
otherwise a bare stage. He originally was going to
use screens but when the bare frames arrived he realised
on stage you could hide behind an open frame as well as a
covered screen. The frames can be turned into never
ending corridors, and the rope traces out the route as
Joseph K vainly tries to find his way out of the legal
maze. The chorus voices the stage directions "He
steps over the inspector" as the characters mime
action. When staging, it is important to avoid any
hesitation in moving the frames- there should be no pause
in the change of scene, the action should flow smoothly,
if necessary with the next scene starting before the
fames are all in place.
Berkoff says he based his role
of Titorelli on Salvador Dali (from the interview on The
Knock at the Manor Gate
The Judgement, The Bucket Rider
Berkoff does staged reading of Kafka´s works
such as The Judgement and very short writings such as
Knock at the Manor Gate. Originally a collection of
Kafka´s minor writings including The Bucket Rider were
performed together as a prologue to Metamorphosis.
The photo is of Berkoff performing Knock at the
Manor Gate, as a companion piece for Metamorphosis (from