Fourth Monkey theatre company
Trinity Buoy Wharf, 17 April 2013
Once again, the trailer bears no resemblance to the actual production...
A disturbing Kafka short story is opened up with mixed results.
Dramatising a Kafka fable is a tempting idea, because his work typically conveys a unique atmosphere, often felt to be peculiarly relevant to our condition. And fables generally are better candidates for staging than other purely literary forms such as poetry or realist novels, where characterisation is better conveyed on the page.
This adaptation of In the Penal Colony necessarily expands upon the background of the colony itself, something left vague in the original.
It’s a mixed success, perhaps because it transforms the penal colony into the other type of colony (one that colonises a place), established on a tropical island by a British Commandant in the 1950s, and stuck in that era.
So the condemned prisoner becomes an oppressed native, rather than an imprisoned criminal, and this adds an extra layer to the piece; but overall I found this more confusing than enlightening.
The author’s distinguished (and foreign-speaking) visitor is now a fairly normal modern British tourist, not a foreigner really but uncomfortable around these reminders of a distant colonial past. It’s an attitude I would find easier to share if the colonists didn’t already seem especially grotesque, also oddly prone to childishness, as displayed in their enthusiasm for their guest.
Did colonialism stunt their growth? Or is it the strong leadership of the deceased Commandant that stunts it?
For Kafka, the colonists are not stunted at all, so the question doesn’t arise. But at the end he does surprisingly suggest that the population hated their former Commandant, and were less happy to witness his exacting executions than the central character (the judge/executioner) allows.
In this production that hatred at least makes sense – the hatred of children for their tyrannical father.
One aspect of the fable is conveyed powerfully in this production – the feelings of the central character towards the changes since the old Commandant died. These may be humane changes, or at least well-intentioned, but in her view they are destroying justice, so naturally she fights them.
Here, the changes have more to do with the grinding soulessness of bureaucracy, though presumably the new Commandant could cut through this red tape if he didn’t harbour doubts about the humanity of the executions.
Other aspects of the fable are less well done, or ignored altogether. The disturbingly Christ-like cult of the former Commandant is not present here, though we do hear his godlike voice, another confusing intrusion. The self-execution (or rather unintended self-murder) of the judge/executioner is visually impressive but its various horrors go missing from Kafka's text.
The execution method itself is as imaginatively Dantesque here as it is in the written story, and this is properly the abiding image of the drama, just as it is of the text.
This was a site-specific drama, at the fairly isolated Trinity Buoy lighthouse in London’s docklands. It was the immersive kind, where the audience is encouraged to speak to characters, rather than the more spectatorly Punchdrunk kind (for example). This increases our sense of the strangeness of the colonial community, and the actors were committed and believable, though grotesquerie is surely less challenging than realism.