Brighton Fringe 2018
Anything by Franz Kafka is a must-see for me. I’d already been to a ‘Metamorphosis’ that was part of this Fringe, and I was keen to follow it up with another production featuring the writer. I couldn’t find ‘Apparatus’ in Kafka’s works, so it was a great surprise to discover that this piece is based on his short story ‘In The Penal Colony’.
Not really ‘based on’, though. Re-reading the story for this review, it’s pretty much word for word. And while Different Theatre’s ‘Metamorphosis’ gave a feminist and Freudian reinterpretation of that text – in this one Blue Devil Theatre have simply acted out a performance of Kafka’s lines on the Rialto stage.
‘In The Penal Colony’ features a bizarre killing machine, used for executing condemned criminals in an unnamed European outpost somewhere in the Tropics.
Wherever it is, the temperature’s extremely hot. As the lights come up we first see a man in a white linen suit, but when a military officer appears, she’s wearing a tight-fitting full-dress uniform and tall black leather boots. She’s sweating into a pair of handkerchiefs tucked into her collar, but she tells the man that the uniforms “remind us of home”.
She’s the officer in charge of conducting executions in the colony. The Officer. She’s very clear about her status, and she takes great pride in explaining the machine’s functions to the man, who seems to be a visiting writer or an eminent traveller. I called the machine ‘bizarre’ before – maybe it’s better classified as ‘Baroque’.
There was some kind of platform on wheels on the stage with them, a complicated structure built of chrome tubing – imagine a hospital gurney designed by Philippe Starck. That’s the bit we can see – it’s where the victim is strapped in. There are two much bigger parts though, built out of metal and glass, with wheels and cogs and needles, that The Officer brought into being in the air above the stage, as she pointed them out and explained their function.
Which is to kill a man – slowly, painfully – over a period of twelve hours
Later in the piece a soldier, a private, came in leading a manacled prisoner, and it seemed we would see the machine in action. But Maximus Polling as the soldier, and the heavily bearded Luis Amália as the prisoner, had no lines to speak. By their activities they showed us some details of how the apparatus worked, but they were essentially there as mere stage props – they don’t speak in Kafka’s written version, either. Even Matt Hastings as The Traveller was very much a secondary character. This is really all about the machine itself – The Apparatus – and The Officer.
The Officer acts as its operator, she adjusts and repairs it, but it’s obvious that the relationship between herself and the machine is almost as a High Priestess to some Deity. She’s obsessed with the minutiae of the Apparatus, the tiny details of procedure and ritual that blot out any emotions she might have had for the machine’s actual purpose. (It took place in a later era – but I was reminded of Adolf Eichmann concentrating on his railway schedules, making sure the Transports ran on time, without any regard for where they were heading …)
The Officer started as the perfect functionary. She talked enthusiastically at the beginning, almost like a tour guide in a stately home, about how the procedures had been performed, about the crowds who’d come to witness the deaths, about how she herself had helped young children to the front rows of spectators so that they could get a better view …
But we learn that the institution itself, the public executions by the machine, is under threat. The system, and The Officer’s role in it, was created by the previous Commandant of the Colony; but the new Commandant wants to abandon it and has withdrawn his support. The greater part of the production was Emily Carding’s powerful performance – a long monologue in effect – progressing from functionary to fanatic as she raged against the new regime. The Officer sees The Traveller as someone who could help her case, if only she can convince him. But would she be able to?
So this story is really all about resistance to change. About fighting back, probably with little or no effect, against tectonic shifts in the nature of one’s society. I’m struck that Kafka wrote ‘In The Penal Colony’ in October 1914, just months after the first world war had broken out. Could he sense that the great European Empires, that had seemed so stable for so long, were under threat? That the old order, with its discipline, its venerable institutions where everybody knew their place, was about to be erased for ever?
It’s significant that the piece is set, not in some foreign country that the Traveller visits, but in a Colony – somewhere outside Europe that is completely under the control of a European state, as part of its Empire. You can do what you like in your colonies – think of Devil’s Island, the French penal colony; or of Roger Casement’s revelations of Belgium’s brutal rule in The Congo, which had been published not long before this story was conceived. In Kafka’s time that world still existed – but perhaps he could see the writing on the wall.
The great thing about an event like Brighton Fringe is that it gives us a chance to see work that wouldn’t normally be easily accessible. Blue Devil Theatre have given us an intriguing introduction to a lesser-known work by a great author. See it if you possibly can.