Franz Kafka is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature so when one of his short stories is adapted for the theatre we anticipate that its themes will focus on a bizarre predicament infused with elements of bureaucratic bungling, the wretchedness of human existence, and a protagonist trapped in a web of absurdity and death. Director Ross Dinwiddy’s adaptation of Kafka’s 1914 short story, In the Penal Colony, has been reimagined under the title The Apparatus and it does not disappoint.
As a true Kafkaesque nightmare, The Apparatus is an uncomfortable watch that benefits largely from the courage of its four-member cast. The Traveller (Matt Hastings) enters an execution chamber dominated by an instrument of death, replete with shackles and gleaming instruments. Its structure is reminiscent of the gurney that awaits prisoner’s condemned to die by lethal injection. The Officer (Emily Carding) explains the merits of the instrument with near orgasmic rapture, especially its torturous aspects.
The Traveller learns that The Condemned Man (Luis Amália) will have the nature of his crime inscribed on his body, in essence, a slow, vicious stabbing that will carve and re-carve an accusation of guilt into his flesh until he is a flayed, lifeless carcass. Although The Officer’s mesmeric description of the machine’s efficiency is gut-wrenching to witness, it doesn’t necessarily imbue it with theatrical import.
Nearly 30 minutes of this hour-long play is taken up with The Officer’s monologue of the history of the instrument and the benefits it offers to The Condemned Man, who neither knows the nature of his crime nor his fate. Although Carding delivers this monologue brilliantly, it needs to be pared back.
Dinwiddy’s adaptation also presents a sideshow, the sexual attraction between The Condemned Man and The Soldier (Maximus Polling) who guards him. Their sexcapades serve to divert the audience’s attention away from The Officer’s monologue, possibly intending to serve as a comic respite from the grim aspects of the piece, but it doesn’t quite work. And this is where questions arise about Kafka’s existential musings and whether they are best savoured as literary text, rather than revisited as dramatic dialogue. Certainly, there is a place for both, and The Apparatus is a fitting homage to the original work.
Ultimately, however, the power of The Apparatus lies in the courage of its actors who embody characters stripped – literally and figuratively – of all aspects of human dignity. The audience was well aware of the demands placed on them, in particular on Carding, Amália and Polling. This is not to diminish Hastings’ role as The Traveller, but to acknowledge the weight of futility and vulnerability placed on the other three.
Review by Loretta Monaco
You are cordially invited to a most unusual, mechanically achieved execution – death by means of a complex machine designed and constructed in a nightmare.
A play based on Kafka’s prophetically terrifying yet darkly humorous, In the Penal Colony – a dramatic labyrinth of cruelty, obsession and madness.
The Traveller is only on the island for a few days, he’s no fan of the brutal penal colony there, but he hopes to leave with plenty to write about. Today he is scheduled to watch a man die, but nothing has prepared him for an hour in the company of The Officer – a powerful woman who is keeper and guardian of the hellish apparatus.
And amongst all the horror and insanity just how could a sexual attraction lead to romance between the Condemned Man and a Soldier?
Written and Directed by Ross Dinwiddy
Produced by Alex Grace and Rich Bright
Booking until 26th January 2019