Beneath a blazing sun, a tethered man runs in circles around his gaoler, so dazed and giddy he cannot even correctly parrot the phrases of contrition he is being forced to learn. So begins Amir Nizar Zuabi’s pitiless adaptation of Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, which sees Palestinian theatre company ShiberHur return to the Young Vic after its sell-out run of I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother with this unsettling and compelling production.
Even for those who have never read a line of Kafka, In The Penal Colony is recognisably Kafkaesque. In a state controlled by a mysterious “Commander” a man faces a punishment that far outstrips the seriousness of his crime; a mysterious official arrives to assess the colony – but what is he really assessing? This is a world where power comes with paperwork, and the individual can never truly triumph over the dark circularity of the arguments brought to bear by the state.
Performing the play in Arabic heightens its contemporary relevance, giving it an ‘otherness’ that perversely makes it more immediate: we could right now be in the Middle East, the Gulf or Africa. The images of a man kept on a leash cannot help but invoke images of Abu Ghraib, a modern reminder that man’s inhumanity to man often outstrips anything a mere writer can conjure, and that it never seems to go out of fashion. It is here the play is at its strongest: the scenes where the Prisoner is stripped of his clothing and strapped into the Device are amongst the most uncomfortable I’ve seen in the theatre in a long time, never allowing the audience to flinch away from the terribleness of his fate.
The performances of the three man cast are strong. Amer Hiehel is especially convincing as the Executioner, a man who has been doing his job so long he is in thrall to it. He brings much of the pitch black humour to the piece (his bemoaning that even capital punishment is subject to ‘the cuts’) and his is a nuanced portrayal of a man who might have once been good (he shows an almost affectionate care to his charge) but has lost his humanity to his love of ‘the Device’. He has found such beauty in cruelty that he mourns its passing, and recalls with awe the old days when such torture was a public spectacle for the edification of the masses, before a new, feminised regime (he speaks damningly of the new Commander’s “women”) decided it was no longer politic or economic to employ. He is a man who, in the end, finds a moral standpoint of a sort, preferring self-sacrifice to adaptation. As the Visitor, Makram Khoury manages just the right level of appalled opacity – he is kind to the Prisoner, shocked by the Device, but you are never entirely sure of his purpose or motives. With a more difficult and physical role – often having little to do but grunt, run around and pant in terror – Taher Najib’s Prisoner still manages to be sympathetic.
Ashraf Hanna’s design, like the text, merges beauty with horror: a field of sunflowers provides no hiding place to a would-be escapee, while a tower of stacked chairs evokes the crowds who no longer come, and in the centre – elegant, unavoidable and terrifying – stands the Device.
There are some flaws. Admittedly, as a professional subtitler, I was always going to be tougher on this aspect of the production than most, but there are moments when the timing of these was clearly mismatched with the speech (as well as several occasions when the subtitles seemed to stop working completely), which was both jarring and made it harder to follow the dialogue. The release of the Prisoner, unscathed, from the Device for the final reversal felt like a let down after the excruciating scenes of torture: how terrible can this Device really be if he can emerge without a mark? This decision undermines the Executioner’s final choice, stripping it of some of its power. Not a huge amount actually happens in the play even for such a short running time, and the final confrontation between the Visitor and the Executioner, pleading for a reprieve of his Device – and the reveal of the Prisoner’s genuine potential for threat – felt a little overdone.