A harsh beam of white light flashes across the audience at the start of Shadwell Opera’s In the Penal Colony. We squint. A technical issue? No. Director Jack Furness is reminding us of our role as witnesses at the chilling incident about to unfold.
Philip Glass’s opera – based on the harrowing short story by Franz Kafka – is about as far from escapism as theatre can get. The show sucks the audience unwittingly into dark themes of violence and injustice, before pointing an accusing finger at you for going along with it.
A Traveller has arrived at a Penal Colony, where a Prisoner is due to be executed. An Officer explains to the Traveller the workings of the execution machine, which carves the Prisoner’s sentence into his skin and causes him to die over a period of twelve hours. The Officer strongly advocates the process, but the new Commander wants to abolish it. When the Traveller refuses to interfere, the Officer climbs into the machine himself and it mauls him to death.
Shadwell Opera, a flourishing graduate set-up, is performing the work at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End (just the second time the opera has been produced in the UK). This compact space is exactly the environment that Glass had in mind for his ‘pocket opera’. Not wanting it to be restricted to large opera houses, he just wrote for string quintet. Intimacy is key.
Most composers would be hard pushed to reflect Kafka’s trademark emotional sterility. Yet Glass, whose writing is both celebrated and abhorred for its repetitiveness, is the man for the job.
The music’s slowly evolving litany has the same effect as a horror film soundtrack. It sets an underlying tone without stealing the limelight. The pulse remains steady as the texture mounts, making you feel as though you’re being mentally prepared for something but you don’t know what. Sometimes you even forget it’s there, churning away, before realising it just temporarily sank into your subconscious.
Jack Furness handles the combination of detachment and horror with impeccable balance. The monochrome landscape is vaguely colonial: the lighting suggests a dusty heat, and the Officer and Soldier are dressed in beige uniforms. The Condemned Man, strapped into the ghastly apparatus, is just visible inside a yurt. ‘He’ is actually a puppet in a gas mask, which is aesthetically striking but steals the pivotal test of human empathy away from the audience.
Nicholas Morris is enthralling as the Officer. His rich baritone voice lends authority to the fanatical man, who will lose everything if his precious machine is made redundant. He teeters on the brink of becoming completely unhinged, anxiety whirring in his eyes, but just when you think he’s falling over the edge, his face breaks into a disturbing smirk.
Andrew Dickinson is well cast, too, as the apathetic Traveller. His voice blends seamlessly with the music, demonstrating his polite compliance. The musicians perform onstage with unrelenting fervour, conducted skilfully by the inconspicuous Matthew Fletcher.
The final climax is masterfully executed. After an hour of rising tension, we are exposed to the brutal and bloody reality of the whole experience. The Traveller spins round to the audience. “Go home!” he shouts. How frightening that we have all just sat and watched, as he has. The bright light shines on us again. Embarrassed, I shut my gaping mouth.
The next and final performance of Shadwell Opera’s In the Penal Colony will be on June 30 at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photographs © Nick Rutter