In The Penal Colony (St Hilda's Arts Week)

Mon 30th April – Tue 1st May 2012


Amy Whetstone

at 22:44 on 30th Apr 2012



After a slightly disconcerting and ethereal prelude to the drama while queuing for my ticket as I noticed a bedraggled and heavily made-up ‘Patient 192’ wandering through the conservatory outside St Hilda’s Auditorium, I was excited yet still a tad unsure of what to expect from this small University-based production in aid of St Hilda’s Art Week. Nonetheless, the visit definitely proved worthwhile.

"In the Penal Colony" is a dramatic adaptation of Kafka’s short story of the same name published in 1914. Chilling and deeply enigmatic - could one expect any less from such an author - the play charts the arrival of a western outsider into an outlying colonial backwater to observe the execution of a condemned man. After having been described in great detail the workings of the machine for the execution and being informed of the appallingly unjust judicial procedure by its greatest advocate the explorer is horrified. What more is to come, you will have to find out for yourself...

First of all, I must state that the play’s opening was terrific; I could not fault it. The unrelenting and characteristic agitation and stuttering of the ‘patient’ - a part played expertly by Jonnie Griffiths- while the auditorium filled with people created a distinctively uneasy atmosphere exactly suited to the tale to come. This ambience was then further developed by the projection of every moment in the ‘cell’ onto the back wall of the auditorium, the black and white and slightly delayed image evoking the surveillance of modern CCTV. This audience-focussed dynamic was a brilliant decision by director Adam Gethin-Jones and, continued throughout the play in the use of both stage, aisles and ‘audience floor’, - forgive me for want of a better word - really made the piece, imprinting the deep ethical and moral questions onto the mind of the spectators. What is justice? Or guilt? Is there any meaning in suffering?

These key social and philosophical issues were indeed perpetually posed throughout the performance. Although this was for the most part effective, there were a few moments when the drama ‘dragged on’ a little. Subsequent appearances of the condemned in his cell were bordering on tedium when the prisoner ‘acted mad’ for an extended period of time. Characterisation was also, I believe, not quite fully expounded. Though the vast majority of the play was convincing and compelling - I must mention now the impressively authoritarian performance of Leonie Nicks - a few instances seemed not so plausible. Take for instance the officer’s very sudden change of heart at the drama’s conclusion, or the seeming lack of character development in the Explorer - both were fundamentally lacking in credibility, either dramatically or realistically. Yet what form of portrayal of individuality should you expect, one might ask, from a play based on a short story where the characters are named only after their respective societal roles? Although I concur to a certain extent, I believe that in dramatic form character credibility must necessarily overcome closeness to the text. But perhaps this is only my own opinion.

Lighting played a crucial role in this performance and was manipulated to good dramatic effect, the changing background colours working in symbolic harmony with the action and script of the piece, passive cool blue and bright red unsurprisingly being the flavours of the night. The set was also professional-looking and appropriate. I especially applaud whoever crafted the material intricacies of the torture machine - and I mean this in a purely physical sense here, don’t worry! Though naturally inferior to Kafka’s hideous and extremely detailed conception of his contraption, its menacing presence at the centre of the stage serves as an effective constant reminder of the terrors of the so-called ‘justice.’

Chilling, somewhat distressing and above all deeply unsettling, this was without doubt an unusual piece to see on the eve of the frantic celebrations of May Day. Nevertheless, a stimulating evening with ethical, mental and intellectual challenges around every turn.


Nathalie Wright

at 23:22 on 30th Apr 2012



Kafka’s haunting short story of the same name is presented faithfully and with competence by St Hilda’s College Dramatic Society, even if the play didn’t quite etch the discomfiting disturbance into my consciousness which I (being the perverse individual I am) hoped it would do. Steven Berkoff’s script certainly captures well the atmosphere of the novella, with dialogue taken verbatim from the original intertwined unperceptively with the necessary additional material for an hour long performance. What this particular adaptation pertinently brought to light in its climax and obliged the audience to grapple with were issues surrounding intervention in foreign nations: “Are we not all different?” asks the Officer, when criticised by an equally anonymous Explorer for the code of justice the former runs in the colony, where “Guilt is never to be doubted”: “Each country has a personality like a human being.” Questions are raised as to what extent one can claim one’s own moral judgements as applicable to the whole of humanity: whether intruding into another country’s protocol is justified if you are a “stranger.” Of course the potential for interpreting the piece as allegorical of contemporary and past societies is huge and I think the director, Adam Gethin-Jones, did well to keep the piece suggestive and elusive in accordance with Kafka’s style: although “Europe” is alluded to, it is not overdone and there is plenty of scope for multiple readings.

The play, as is fashionable (that is not a criticism) “began” before it started in earnest. A screen showing live footage of the Patient as he writhed in his own madness, accompanied by the ironic tinkling of classical piano music was striking. The live camera which filmed each audience member as s/he walked in was a great touch: “capturing” the viewer and establishing empathy with the Patient. The grainy black and white not only was pragmatic in that it allowed the audience to see clearly what was happening when their view was obscured, but the slight delay between live action and footage was eerie and gloriously voyeuristic. Jonnie Griffiths knows how to pull off the crazy smile of a madman well, although his initial lunatic ramblings perhaps could have been more startling (and mundanely) louder.

Leonie Nicks, as the Officer had a difficult job, with by far the majority of the play’s lines and the portrayal of a character that is relentlessly unexplained by Kafka in his narrative. Perhaps the role could have been developed more. There were occasional touches of cliché villain which would have been best tempered with more daring experimentation and boldness. On the whole, the acting was a bit safe although there were some well thought-through tableaus, especially involving the Patient and the Guard.

The special effects were quite special and pretty effective: the death-scene being pulled off particularly well (which could have easily been underminingly farcical), the use of music when the Guard and Patient wrestled silent movie stylee was a nice flourish. All-in all, even if I didn’t quite feel “detained, sectioned and cross-examined” by the power of the show, it certainly captured my attention for an hour.


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