July 26, 2011 by IJV
Prague 1914; Haifa, then London, 2011. What happens when a short story written by a secular German Jew – Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ – is translated into Arabic by a leading Palestinian theatre company, and, after touring in Palestine, is performed in London, with English surtitles, as part of the current festival of Arab culture? At one level, nothing. The excellence of this production is most fundamentally in its purity of abstraction, rendering onstage in a way absolutely faithful to Kafka the brutalizing terror of a seemingly meaningless system of power. This penal colony, we soon realize, is a nowhere that could be anywhere, and is in some sense everywhere. Before us we see a prisoner on a leash, running in circuits around his guard. The stage is dominated, however, by a machine that will inscribe the prisoner’s sentence on his body in a slow lingering execution. Here, anyone who has read Michel Foucault will recognize a striking image of the micro-penetration of power.
However, not just the distancing effect of reading English whilst listening to Arabic, but also the consciousness of who these performers are, and the conditions in which they live and work, make it impossible to watch the production without also thinking about how it speaks to the current situation in Palestine.
We are in a repressive regime that punishes insubordination with public torture, but where a new commandant has come to power, leaving the torturer anxious that the machine to which he is so devoted, and his power as executor of summary justice, are about to be abolished. This society in the process of change is suggestive of the perils and uncertainties of the current Arab Spring: where the fall of dictators brings down many corrupt little people with them; where the survival of dictators points to an all-pervasive complicity; and where there is deep scepticism about the impact of a change of leadership on those below. An atmosphere of inescapable fear pervades the play, most of all in its final scene, where the prisoner, set free from his torturer, returns instinctively to his futile, obedient circling. There is no exit from the Penal Colony.
ShiberHur’s ‘In The Penal Colony’ is not in any straightforward sense an Occupation drama. There is nothing in the play that allegorically might stand for Israel, and no focus on the ultimate location of power. It is, rather, a study in the brutalizing penetration of power into the individual psyche. Nonetheless, the play’s relentless evocation of imprisonment and stasis, and its uncompromisingly bleak vision in the face of the tentative optimism that has emerged across so much of the Arab world this year, silently points to invisible, external forces that perpetuate this stasis.
We get some sense, watching this production, of eavesdropping on a very sophisticated and angry Palestinian dramatization of their situation, given form by Kafka’s narrative. But what does this say, and do, to ‘us’ as an audience in London, watching this discussion of torture, and witnessing the tortured body itself? Throughout much of the staging we watch the machine attempt its last ever execution before decommissioning. We see the prisoner in the torture machine, his back to us and arms bound in a Christ-like pose, accompanied by the Baroque music of the Passion. There is an extraordinary discomfort to watching this, a tableau of beauty mixed with horror, oddly familiar from European art, and strikingly revealed in its barbarity. We cannot help but watch, complicit at the very least with the torturer’s desire for an audience as we are gripped by his vivid description of slow execution as a glorious spectacle of justice.
If we identify ourselves with anyone on the stage, it is the third figure in the play, a visitor who has come from the metropolis to inspect the colony, and, seeing what we see, supports closing down its torture machinery. Despite this, he is ultimately unable to help the prisoner, suggesting the powerlessness of external interventions. This echoes the rather ineffectual, voyeuristic position of us as passive audience members and also calls to mind the weaknesses of the international NGO apparatus in Palestine and elsewhere. Viewed in London the play reaches out and jabs the audience, unsettling us as witnesses to a nightmare that is not ours.
In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, performed by ShiberHur Theatre Company of Palestine, London, Young Vic Theatre, July 2011.
Adam Sutcliffe and Nadia Valman