It’s odd to come away from a Palestinian production of a Kafka tale thinking about Harry Potter, especially as there is not a bespectacled child wizard in sight.
But the device at the centre of this story predates a punishment meted out to JK Rowling’s teenage magician when the lines he is told to repetitively write are simultaneously carved into the back of his hand. Here, being aimed at adults rather than children, the recipient spends 12 hours having the rule he broke sliced into his flesh in an elaborate form of death by tattoo.
The initial thought of this is enough to turn the hardiest of stomachs, but condemnation without understanding of context is just one of the themes being explored in this short three-hander from Palestinian company Shiber Hur.
When a Visitor (Makram Khoury) arrives to examine the death-bringing machine, he enters the world inhabited by The Executioner (Amer Hlehel) and The Prisoner (Taher Najib). They know the rules. They know the boundaries. They are safe within its construct. The Visitor brings fresh eyes, but eyes that threaten the way of life they understand.
As The Executioner passionately explains the wonder of his machine with an awe so heartfelt and elegiac that you almost forget its barbarity and fall for the soft-featured Hlehel’s wide-eyed sweetness, thoughts and questions about police states, military occupation, the nature of punishment, heirachy and the human need for boundaries demand to be pondered. At just an hour long, it is a snapshot that encourages more thought than many a production twice its length.
Performed in Arabic, with surtitles appearing on the innocuously cabin-like machine in such a way that they are included in the action rather than hung high above the stage in shunned seclusion, In The Penal Colony simply and artfully draws audiences into a land similar to our own but also otherwordly, beautiful but dark; so maybe not that different to Harry Potter after all. At the Young Vic, however, the lines between good and evil, right and wrong are considerably more blurred than at Hogwarts… and there are no house elves.