Watching Sydney Chamber Opera’s In the Penal Colony is like witnessing someone else’s nightmare. The audience sees a world where torture and capital punishment are the norm and these acts are carried out with a passive dispassion. The whole world is incredibly bizarre, but it all seems to make sense, just like a dream.
The plot is simple, based on a story by Franz Kafka – a foreigner travels to a penal colony to witness an execution. He’s been invited, but it’s not exactly clear why. What is clear is that he is appalled and confused by what he sees. But he doesn’t intervene or even ask questions. As a foreigner, he knows it isn’t his place. We see the action mainly through the visitor’s eyes, as he is led through the execution by an officer who views the execution as a necessary and redemptive process.
Throughout all of this, a dazzling string quintet led by Huw Belling plays Philip Glass’s hypnotic score, which intensifies with repetition. The genius of the score lies in how much Glass does with so little. The libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer is insightful but often feels out of touch with the score with some clunky phrasing and awkward accents.
Pascal Herington, as the visitor, easily negotiates some of the score’s more difficult moments and has great chemistry with the other actors. But when he tells his story directly to the audience, it feels a little forced and unnatural. Paul Goodwin-Groen is wonderful as the officer, capturing his character’s devastation at a changing world. His voice is rich and deeply expressive. Anthony Hunt is chilling in a silent performance as the condemned man.
All the action takes place in an entirely white room enclosed by a tight picture frame. The set, by Michael Hankin, feels almost like an aquarium, where the audience passively observes the unfolding action. The entire production, directed by Imara Savage unfolds with a minimum amount of drama. Every action is underplayed, creating incredible dramatic intensity.
Everything about In the Penal Colony is challenging, from its treatment of torture and execution through to the demanding vocal score. Sydney Chamber Opera has taken on all these challenges and succeeded in creating a production that is as gripping as it is haunting.