Preview: The Penal Colony


Adam Gethin-Jones and his cast are waiting for the brutes in St. Hilda’s Dramatic Society’s newest production, In The Penal Colony, a schizophrenic adaptation from the short story by Franz Kafka.

Now, I must admit to having been slightly sceptical before going to see the play: as a huge fan of Kafka’s work, I was afraid a poor production could ruin one of his gems for me. What I saw of the play was, however, a pleasant surprise, even if not a staggering cathartic masterpiece. The plot revolves around the execution of the Prisoner, observed by the Explorer, a mysterious traveller visiting the Penal Colony and the mysterious device used to carry out the execution, an object of almost erotic fascination for the Officer, who has a peculiar nostalgia for the bygone times of the former commandante of the Penal Colony.

Or was it a sanatorium? The original plot has been heavily adapted, with new elements added and the whole story transposed onto the realities of a decaying sanatorium. The Prisoner becomes a patient, new levels of alienation are created, and the plot conventionalised by the cultural context of the mental institution, a theme so overexploited in recent years that it has become a staple of modern popular culture. But quite apart from my (probably obvious) distaste for the concept of this adaptation the problem lies primarily with the lack of clarity. The actors still refer to each other as ‘Officer’, ‘Prisoner’ and so forth, despite their costumes and the set design. The sanatorium setting certainly adds to the schizophrenic qualities of the play, but unfortunately, probably not in the way the director would have liked.

What the play lacks in clarity and cohesion it definitely makes up for in acting talent. Jonathan Griffiths as the Prisoner deserves special attention, his brilliant portray of his character’s madness is the high point of the play and it’s worth the trek to St. Hilda’s merely to see this talented actor in what is a perfectly cast role. Also, the casting of two women in the roles of Explorer and Officer creates a fascinating new level to the script and the exposed sexual undertones of the Officer’s relationship with the former Commandante and her fascination with the machine add an intriguing twist to the basic plot. The other actors don’t disappoint, even if they sometimes seem to be ever so slightly overplaying their roles.

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All in all then, a good play, well acted and directed, if perhaps sometimes overambitious in its attempts to produce a more modern reading of Kafka’s great story. Definitely worth recommending if you have a free evening and want to see a few talented young actors enact a masterful story by one of the literary geniuses of the previous century.

Three and a half stars