Gareth K Vile checks in with more events at the Traverse's festival.
I watch performance in a desperate attempt to feel something. A constant stream of internet information, romantic failures, continued disappointment at the idiocy of elected politicians, a nagging sense of self-doubt and mounting financial concerns have conspired to convince me that an emotional numbness is the only way to exist. A night out at the theatre isn’t a gentle entertainment anymore. It is my last, best hope for feeling.
Opera works well for this. At the very least, it is a reminder of emotions I want to inhabit: huge passions, absurd expression, hopeless desire and tremendous waves of sound. And Philip Glass delivers wave of repetitive energy, working and reworking a small study of notes, building over time towards a final, deliberate moment of revelation and disgust.
When Kafka wrote about a brutal execution machine, he adorned his short story with typically obscure motifs and symbolism. When Philip Glass wrote an opera based on the story, he stripped it back to his usual minimalist intensity, turning Kafka’s meditation on the nature of punishment into an argument between a stern traditionalist and an uncertain liberal observer.
Music Theatre Wales are known for their stripped down approach to opera, and Glass’ clipped intent suits their style: the line from Kafka’s original through the score to Michael McCarthy’s direction is clear and sharp. The two singers move between torture table, ladder and around the voiceless prisoner: the certainty of the warden is slowly undermined by the discomfort of the observer. The subtexts, the passions, the violence itself, are all subsumed beneath Glass’ urgent and mesmeric strings.
For the first hour, the libretto sets up a moral conundrum. Is it still acceptable for punishment to be merely punitive, or must it be redemptive? In the last moments, the warden inevitably finds himself at the mercy of his own ideas, his own machine. As the blood drips down onto his back, the horrible revelation, that is no revelation, is unfolded. For all his talk of the morality of his justice, the warden is wedded to horror, not reform.
I write about performance in a desperate attempt to express something of what I have experienced. Yet, through Glass’ score, McCarthy’s direction and the musicians’ intensity, I am brought back to my own state of numbness. It is as if In the Penal Colony is reflecting my own shock and dislocation, resolving nothing and proving only that horror itself is merely anaesthetising.