Devised and created by the Fourth Monkey Ensemble
Directors: Hamish MacDougall and James Yeatman
Reviewer: Lizzie Kirkwood
In this large and ambitious production by Fourth Monkey, Franz Kafka’s short story ‘In The Penal Colony’ is transformed into a site-specific interactive piece with a 50 strong cast.
The action unfolds in the sprawling and remote Trinity Buoy Wharf, a collection of riverside warehouses and underground industrial spaces, lending itself perfectly to a vision of isolated dystopia.
Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ tells the story of a traveler who, arriving on a remote island, is introduced to a machine for execution which slowly kills the condemned by inscribing the crime he has committed into his skin.
One of the reasons Kafka’s writing is so quietly disturbing is the impassivity of its characters. They refuse or are unable to acknowledge atrocities in the face of absurd injustice; there is no voice of reason. Put simply, people that appear to be intelligent and reasonable act in a way that is illogical and frightening.
The characters in Project Colony, however, are explicitly grotesque. In several sequences they twist and gurn and limp around the space, talking in strange and unnatural rhythms. The effect of which is curiously calming; one expects these characters to behave in a strange and illogical way, and— unlike when reading Kafka— is not unsettled to find them doing so. Some audience members may be thankful for this, but I would have liked to have seen the production pushed further in its darkness and alienation.
The most successful moments of the second act involve the inhabitants of the island, naïve and hungry to learn, bounding about the room dressed as though at a high school dance in the 1960s. Their smiles offset the violent subtext wonderfully.
Interesting is the decision to cast the Visitor, the Officer, the Soldier and the Condemned as very young women, which makes the production seem a little like what would happen if Mark Gatiss were the head of drama at a school. One leaves feeling that it would be brilliant, but confused as to whether they are intended to be children or adults.
The character of the visitor is portrayed as a baffled and embarrassed guest; keen not to offend her hosts, while making eye contact with members of the audience to communicate her confusion. This too lessens the feeling of alienation; there is someone the audience can relate to and this anticipates a happy resolution.
At two hours and 45 minutes, an interactive party sequence in which the audience is told to play board games at their tables and do a quiz seems an odd use of time. This decision is not helped by the freezing temperatures in the warehouse.
Project Colony has moments of absolute brilliance- the direction is slick, precise and visually stunning. It also handles its own scale well, at once seeming sprawling and claustrophobic. The initial sequence, which details the workings of the machine, is masterly and choreographed to absolute perfection. This unwavering level of precision is something that runs through the whole performance.