In the Penal Colony, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, September 2010

How to expiate guilt? Not by instant execution surely, so a long process of torture has been devised using an exquisite machine that only the executing officer understands. He believes in it wholeheartedly — in a sense it’s his raison d’être — but as he realises the new governor will not approve its use, he is ready to undergo its treatment himself. In the twelve hours it takes the machine to score the condemned man’s sentence on his skin, there is opportunity for redemption, even though he doesn’t know the charges against him, nor indeed the fact that he has been condemned to death. The officer believes it creates in the victim a mystical experience, and he is nostalgic for the previous governor who designed the machine, and in whose regime sentences were always justly deserved and carried out. Bizarrre? But this is Kafka.

The new governor has appointed a visitor to report on the process, and he looks miserable. “I accepted this invitation out of courtesy”, he begins. When the officer enters with the condemned man and enthuses about the machine, the visitor — very well sung with excellent diction by Michael Bennett — grows increasingly uneasy. The officer — very beautifully sung by Omar Ebrahim — is quite sure of the justice he is delivering, and confidently answers the visitors questions. “Does he know his sentence?” “No”. “Does he know he’s been condemned?” “No”. The prisoner, played by Gerald Tyler apparently doesn’t understand the language, and sings not a word. His is an acting role and he performs it with slow cowed movements, until the end when he is apparently in command. Now he leers sadistically. Apparently he understands what will happen, but in fact the machine malfunctions, and death comes very fast. There is no mystical experience for the officer — he may have delivered it to others, but there is none left for him.

This strange story was darkly lit by Ace McCarron, and supported on a tableau of music by Philip Glass, played by a string quintet from the Music Theatre Wales conducted by Michael Rafferty. The music was rhythmically intense, as one would expect from Glass, and its energy carried the strange plot forward. The direction by Michael McCarthy was excellent, and it was all over in an hour and twenty minutes. Short and intense, but it didn’t leave me thinking any deep thoughts.

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