How do you put a machine of death and execution on the stage? Especially one as described in Kafka’s 1919 short story, with its vicious inscriber marking the condemned man’s body with a reminder of his crime; which was, to fall asleep, and not respect his superiors.
The answer is: you don’t, except as a monument with a panel for sur-titles – the text is spoken in Arabic — and a mirror showing decorous streams of blood as the prisoner is pecked by incisors, having been whirred around the stage on a rope like some Middle Eastern equivalent of Beckett’s Lucky in Waiting for Godot.
And this is the problem: the story lacks dramatic momentum but on stage demands it. So the Haifa-based Shiber Hur company provides a small field of sun flowers – freedom, love, escape – and a large pile of unoccupied chairs, representing absentee spectators.
This is a welcome return for the director Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Young Vic associate, whose productions of Alive From Palestine (counterpointing the chaos in the wake of the British Mandate with the siege of Ramallah) and I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother (charting horror and hardship at a border crossing) have been imaginative and compelling documents of modern day tragedy.
But this show does scant justice to Kafka, and fails to liberate him into theatre as Steven Berkoff’s famous productions of Metamorphosis and The Trial certainly did. Nor is there a sense of it being about Palestine: Amer Hiehel’s sweating executioner is merely a “jobsworth” in love with his killing apparatus, nostalgic for the “good old days.”
The new, unseen, commandant, is less keen on public executions. The executioner himself is alienated from his homeland, clinging on to his uniform. And Makram Khoury’s semi-engaged visitor – in Kafka he’s a more surreal “traveller” with an absorbent quality of cold dismay – is a NATO-style observer with a complicated briefcase.
The big surprise remains Kafka’s, but the staging suggests something even more bizarre might happen, perhaps along the lines of a Shakespearean revelation of character. But it doesn’t, and the production suffers from its allotted lack of narrative energy. The acting, though, is totally engaging for the short duration of one hour: Taher Najib’s prisoner is elegantly strange and untouchable, way beyond the tyranny of state punishment.