In the Penal Colony, Young Vic, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Monday 18 July 2011 00:00
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Guilt is always deemed beyond doubt, the Executioner tells the inspecting Visitor in In the Penal Colony, the Kafka fable presented in a taut and darkly disturbing 60-minute adaptation (in Arabic, with English surtitles) by Amir Nizar Zuabi and the Palestinian theatre company ShiberHur.

As in The Trial, the accused are not told the nature of their crime – or rather, here they are eventually told it, in a manner of speaking, but only when it is far too late to put up a defence.

Strapped prone and naked into a gruesome torture device, they "experience" the sentence when it is engraved on their backs by a system of throbbing glass needles, in a 12-hour process that ends with the dead body being tipped into a pit. One of the justifications of this method, according to the authorities, is that in the final stages the prisoners seem to undergo a form of spiritual exaltation.

The horror is mediated through grim comedy, as Zuabi's production skilfully brings out. Amer Hlehel is excellent as the hefty, sweatily troubled Executioner – anxious to impress Makram J Khoury's sensitive, elderly Visitor with the ingenuity of his lethal contraption and worriedly aware that its days are numbered now that a new Commander, with plans for reform, has taken over the colony. Jerking the largely speechless condemned Prisoner (Taher Najib) on his leash and forcing him to run circuits, Hlehel shows you a man who has been utterly brainwashed by the doublethink of the old regime (such as the belief that the machine is an instrument of time-saving mercy) and is angrily nostalgic for the days when executions drew huge crowds, with children given priority viewing.

There is evidence of that time in the ziggurats of defunct plastic stacked on one side of Ashraf Hana's set, while on the other there is a field of the sunflowers the Executioner presses upon the Visitor in the hope of suborning him. The former's absurd bureaucratic devotion to his vile creed commands an unwilling kind of respect that has to be kept sharply distinct from complicity. But you can't berate him for wanting to wriggle out of his own logic when at the end, to a mix of baroque opera and tribal chanting, he strips and replaces the Prisoner in the torture device.

To 23 July (020 7922 2922)

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