“It’s stuff that you wouldn’t get in any other show that doesn’t have someone playing a beetle.”Josh Carter with permission for Varsity

The Corpus Playroom is often regarded as a secondary venue to the ADC Theatre, partly due to its limited technical capacity and partly due to its feel, which seems to be a cross between a theatre and an abandoned motel basement. Indeed, when I meet with Metamorphosis director Emily Sparkes she openly jokes (not unfairly) that there is probably “mould growing in the corner somewhere”

Despite this, while pitching the production she was asked if she would consider the ADC Theatre as an alternative venue; she said no. She tells me, “the only way I could envision what I want for my version of Metamorphosis was to see it in the Corpus Playroom and play into the fact that we have this really oppressive space. We’re trying to encourage the audience to feel as though they are in Gregor’s bedroom; they aren’t just watching, they are involved in this show.”

“Gregor’s transformation into a gigantic insect requires an almost inhuman physicality”

The play itself — practitioner Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of the famous Kafka novella — presents a challenge for any director, purely due to creativity required to capture such an abstract narrative. Gregor’s transformation into a gigantic insect requires an almost inhuman physicality, something which both Sparkes and Movement Director Nathaniel Gunn have been extremely proactive in tackling by working with the actors to build up strength and dexterity ahead of the brief rehearsal period. Emily’s experience primarily lies within choreography rather than directing, providing her with both the confidence and ability to commit to the non-naturalistic requirements of Berkoff; she attempts to “push the actors’ physicality to the extremes of what an audience recognises as human.”

It is, however, the technical ambition of the show which spotlights it amongst the multitude of Cambridge productions. Emily has chosen to stage the play as a meta-theatrical 1950s family TV show (inspired by the likes of Wandavision and The Truman Show), and with only Gregor, played by Liam Macmillan, aware of the audience, he is forced to feel “the weight of the entire world watching him in his transformation”.

In order to immerse the audience in this vision, Emily enlisted Stan Hunt to design an entire soundscape of TV adverts, as well as creating a Bewitched-inspired intro, which will be used both within the show and as a trailer for the production. Although a challenging request, Stan describes how they were “enamoured” by the entire 1950s concept, digging through old archives to find TV adverts to use. Regarding the theme tune, they explain how they went from receiving the initial request to finding themselves, two days later, “sitting in front of [their] computer trying to emulate late career Elvis”. “Whilst on holiday and also unwell”, chimes in Emily, two factors which Stan laughingly claims were “conducive to the state of mind they needed” to create a theme tune for a man who turns into a bug.

“It has allowed the team to completely reconfigure a space which the audience will have seen used many times before.”

As well as creating a meta-theatrical soundscape, the team have also designed a labyrinth of scaffolding to practically encase the Corpus Playroom. Shrinking the already small stage is a bold move, but, as Emily points out, captures the way that Gregor’s transformation has infringed completely on his family’s life.

While echoing the “intrusive” nature of the scaffolding, Assistant Director Tungsten Tang emphasises how it has allowed the team to completely reconfigure a space which the audience will have seen used many times before. Primarily on the technical side, Tungsten’s own experience in Cambridge Theatre has provided them with a broad viewpoint, proving useful in balancing creative approaches to the space with engineering technicalities. Indeed, Emily is eager to express not only the talent of the entire team, but their patience to not dismiss her ideas as “crazy” or “unrealistic”, instead finding ways to maximise the Playroom’s potential and tackle the unique problems presented by both the show and the venue. Producer Elisha Carter offers the example of safety bar height which, although a standard consideration for scaffolding, has to take into account that Macmillan will be crawling for the majority of the production. “It’s stuff that you wouldn’t get in any other show that doesn’t have someone playing a beetle.”

Creativity is not the only thing driving Emily, however, as her genuine passion for the play pervades our discussion. Repeatedly describing the production as a “call to arms”, Emily expresses hope that the audience will gain a fresh appreciation for the text’s exploration of capitalist society and connect with the 1950s setting she has chosen.

As we end the meeting, I express my awe at the production’s ambition, and her eyes light up as she enthusiastically declares “Corpus has never seen anything like [this]!”. Having witnessed the talent, commitment and genuine passion of her team, I have to agree.