In The Penal Colony

Palestinian theatre company ShiberHur returns to the Young Vic with an intense version (lasting just over an hour) of Kafka’s disconcerting short story, written in 1914 but only published, in revised form, 5 years later.

It’s a piece which creates all sorts of staging difficulties, focussing as it does on an elaborate execution machine which, over a period of hours and to the accompaniment of sepulchral music, inscribes the condemned man’s offense on his naked body. Designer Ashraf Hanna flanks his (not always convincing) three tier device with sunflowers on one side and chairs stacked high on the other – under the auspices of the previous unseen commander ofthis unspecified military zone, the execution of a prisoner used to draw crowds of spectators, there to observe the consequences of misdemeanour.

Now, under a new regime, only the Executioner wants to maintain this system. As he prepares to carry out the sentence that he himself has imposed on Taher Najib’s shackled, emaciated Prisoner, a Visitor arrives to watch and assess.

Performed in Arabic, with English surtitles, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s production raises questions about justice, torture and the situation in Palestine itself. And the acting is faultless, with Amer Hlehel fanatically proud of the elaborate instrument of torture he is about to use on a man who did nothing more serious than fall asleep on duty, and Makram Khoury calm but troubled as the Visitor who finds himself drawn into a barbaric procedure.


Young Vic, The Cut, SE1 8LZ
0207 922 2922
Tube: Southwark/Waterloo
Until July 23

– Louise Kingsley