IN THE PENAL COLONY
Young Vic Theatre (Clare), London SE1
Opened 14 July, 2011
****

Franz Kafka’s short story centres around the imminent execution of a prisoner in a machine which slowly and agonisingly inscribes the sentence on his body, killing him over the course of 12 hours. A camp officer explains to a visitor the workings of the machine and of the camp’s internal judicial process (process? – to be accused is to be convicted); he argues that under the camp’s new regime, this approach is falling out of favour and the machine breaking down, and urges the visitor’s help in re-establishing its ascendancy. In the end, faced with the visitor’s plain refusal, the officer straps himself into the machine in a kind of auto-da-fe.
    
All kinds of interpretations are possible as to what such a tale symbolises in a contemporary context. However, the simple fact that it is staged by the Haifa-based Palestinian theatre company ShiberHur tends to concentrate the attention in a particular direction. Adapter/director Amir Nizar Zuabi rigorously eschews any element of hint that this might be a comment upon Israeli-Palestinian relations and policies. There is no need: in a space thus void of explicit analogies, the hour-long piece resonates all the more loudly. But it also allows an international audience such as that on the company’s latest London visit to identify echoes of its own. The portrayal of the opacity of judgement and sentence, for instance, called to my mind the fact that on the very day before the production opened, the UK’s Supreme Court had ruled that intelligence services could no longer give evidence in secret in order to thwart civil claims regarding torture. One can also see the officer’s final act as a “martyrdom” not unlike that of some Islamic bombers.
    
Zuabi’s production, like the original story, is delivered relatively dispassionately; the horror is principally moral. The machine itself can only be suggested here by a closet with a window through which we see the prisoner (Taher Najib) twitch whilst liquid runs down the back wall. Makram Khoury has shown himself on previous visits to be an actor of dignity and restraint, qualities with which he imbues the visitor; Amer Hlehel as the officer is neither consciously evil nor psychopathic, but has clearly invested far too much of himself in a system that is itself wrong and evil. It is a colony we have all encountered, in each role at different times.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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