October 14, 2014

What’s worse than waking up as a beetle?


This is a robot, but it's not Kafka's robot.

This is a robot, but it’s not Kafka’s robot. Via Shutterstock

As a new stage production of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis reveals, it’s waking up as a robot. The Japanese director Oriza Hirata has cast a robot to play the part of Gregor Samsa instead of the more conventional choice: an actor, or more precisely, a human.

Working with the “leading roboticist” Hiroshi Ishiguro, Hirata created “a gangly robot with a metal skeleton and white human-like face and hands”, The Telegraph reports. Hirata told the newspaper that he was hoping to “create a situation in which a robot could move an audience”. It’s a novel way of playing with the original story. Just as we come to feel for Samsa the beetle, so too Hirata’s twist asks us to feel for a gangly robot.

However, part of the power of Kafka’s story is that we begin by feeling repulsed by the visceral creepy crawlyness of a gigantic beetle and yet end up experiencing pity, as well still being a bit repulsed. Can a robot inspire similar initial feelings? Or is Hirata playing with a different set of emotions?

Actress Irene Jacob, who is also acting in the play (and is 100% human) has already been won over by the robot:

It has something quite theatrical alright . . . sometimes he can smile a little bit or even laugh. It’s a bit like a white mask, as we say in French ‘Masque Blanc’, in theatre.

La Metamorphose Version Androide opens in Japan this week, before transferring to France. If the play’s a success, it could be the beginning of a new line of theatre productions where main characters are replaced by robots or other types of technology, just to see the effects. Romeo and Juliet the laptop, The Glass Menagerie of iPods, Waiting for Godot’s Wifi Connection…it’s the future.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.