After falling in love with Fourth Monkey Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, where they fearlessly produced six successful shows, I was worried that their latest show Project Colony would fall short of my high expectations. There was a lot of risk with this phenomenal project being a site-specific show, devised by a company of 54 (under the guiding hands of Hamish MacDougall and James Yeatman), and based upon a novella by Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony. I’m pleased to say that Fourth Monkey don’t disappoint.
This is how site-specific theatre should be done. Every member of the cast are invested in the scenario from the minute they meet you at Trinity Buoy Wharf, going out of their way to ‘welcome you to the party’. Immediately there is something sinister about their incessant smiles and their demure costumes, which seem inspired by 1940s dress (designed by Vicky Stevenson and James Gardiner). Fourth Monkey uses two sites at the wharf: a large white warehouse space and a dark underground space that has that delightfully authentic smell of wet stone. Travelling from one space to another, the view along the River Thames is breathtaking. The body of water which lies between you and London makes you feel dislocated in your own city; thus Trinity Buoy Wharf is reinvented as the island inhabited by the Colony.
The party starts off nicely as everybody sharing a table gets to know one another and the colony members. And then we come to a fork in the road. The big double door open and in march a group of monochrome, masculine men and women with an alien look in their eyes. The colony members avert eye contact anxiously and half of the audience are beckoned out of the warehouse to god knows where. The party carries on as if nothing happened as the tables play party games, and although it may not be integral to the storyline, it shows Fourth Monkey appreciate the importance of the audience experience through interaction, and the improvisation from every single actor is expert. And then they come for the rest of us.
It becomes clear that the warehouse is inhabited by the new regime, presided over by the new commandant. They’ve moved on from the doom and gloom of the old regime existing underground, where the officer keeps the dreaded “machine”. The machine was created for the old commandant as a method of punishment: the prisoner is strapped down as a needle carves their crime into their skin, progressively tracing deeper and deeper over twelve hours as it slowly kills them. It’s during this scene that Fourth Monkey’s ensemble ethic shines; the dialogue is fast paced and passed between them as they fluidly slip in and out of characters, and back into the surreally frigid ensemble.
This is also where we meet the visitor from England; it’s because of her that the colony is holding a party. The over-excited officer hopes the visitor will advocate the brilliance of the machine and lead it to its restoration, and we spend the second act awaiting the visitor’s verdict. The visitor is almost a little too normal by comparison and less compelling to watch than any other member of the cast, especially as they become more and more heightened physically, to the point that their ‘backwards’ culture is presented as something grotesque. And as everything becomes bigger and the stakes are raised, Pablo Fernandez-Baz’s lighting gets hotter and more unbearable. Combined with Jamie Flockton and Harry Barker’s dramatic soundscape, Project Colony is propelled towards a tense ending.
Revolving around the visitor’s question Fourth Monkey is bravely expanding on Kafka’s themes by addressing the problems of technology’s role in societies then and now. Where it’s become detrimental to us as social media detracts from human interaction and our days become increasingly filled with reality television, it’s everything that a less technologically-advanced society craves. And should we have a right to make decisions for other cultures because we have this technology?
Project Colony is easier to appreciate if the audience are familiar with Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, but the cast have devised a show which does stand alone. It’s impossible to single anybody out because they all equally pull their weight. They’ve obviously successfully tackled and understood a complex text, and brought it into relevance for a modern audience through embracing the more daring styles of physical and site-specific theatre, against all the odds. It’s a show which makes you think, not just about the story but the direction of theatre and training today.