The Pris­oner Royal Lyceum, Ed­in­burgh

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture Reviews - Ma

The set is not a mil­lion miles from Druid The­atre’s Wait­ing for Godot that was also on this stage last month. Put to­gether by David Vi­oli, it’s a des­o­late land­scape of sun-scorched wood and the odd rock, a dry and for­bid­ding waste­land. But Sa­muel Beck­ett’s min­i­mal­ist clas­sic is an ac­tion-packed romp com­pared with the gnomic con­tem­pla­tion of this 80-minute piece of soul-search­ing by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Esti­enne. There’s more chance of Godot turn­ing up than of get­ting to the bot­tom of The Pris­oner’s in­scrutable co­nun­drum.

In­spired by an ob­ser­va­tion by Brook in his days as a global wan­derer in search of the­atri­cal truth, it’s the story of Mavuso, who has mur­dered his fa­ther for hav­ing an in­ces­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship with his sis­ter. The young man’s pun­ish­ment is un­com­monly try­ing. In­stead of con­fine­ment, his 20-year sen­tence is to sit in the desert gaz­ing upon a pri­son from the out­side. The ease with which he could turn on his heels and leave is what makes his chal­lenge so excruciating. Ac­cept­ing his guilt, Mavuso, played with grace and sto­icism by Hi­ran Abey­sek­era (pic­tured), wants to be purged.

Who would ac­cept im­pris­on­ment with­out be­ing im­pris­oned? In this telling, Hervé Goff­ings as Ezechiel, Mavuso’s un­cle, has a com­mand­ing moral au­thor­ity that in­flu­ences the younger man, but you don’t get the im­pres­sion he needs much per­suad­ing. Mavuso read­ily ac­cepts the for­feit as the only way to “re­pair” him­self.

But al­though philo­soph­i­cally provoca­tive, a man spend­ing two decades on a bar­ren plain is dra­mat­i­cally in­ert. Wait­ing for Godot does at least of­fer the prom­ise of a rev­e­la­tion, whereas The Pris­oner com­mits to noth­ing more spe­cific than a mys­ti­cal search for “some­thing else” in a coun­try where a “rough brown magic” pre­vails. The clar­ity and con­trol that char­ac­terised Brook’s best work on texts with the rich­ness of The Ma­hab­harata and The Tem­pest are only a few short steps from ba­nal­ity when the ma­te­rial is this thin.

The Pris­oner is at its most in­ter­est­ing when we see how Mavuso’s ges­ture up­sets the con­ven­tional or­der. He’s not in any­one’s way, yet he is joined one night by two pri­son guards who are dis­turbed by his pres­ence and would be hap­pier if he left. How to deal with a man who is not so much breaking the law as obey­ing it too well? “You’re un­der­min­ing the whole sys­tem,” sy they tell him, a feel­ing shared by the kindly lo­cal vil­lager who be­friends him (Omar Silva) and Mavuso’s es­tranged es­trang sis­ter, Na­dia (Kalieaswari Srini­vasan), Srinivasa to whom he is also sex­u­ally at­tracted at­tract (the play’s sex­ual pol­i­tics are vex vex­ing). To deal with a story that is more med med­i­ta­tive than dra­matic, Brook and Esti­enne treat it like a fairy tale. They give it the arch ar­che­typal qual­ity of a pa para­ble, but not the pro pro­fun­dity it seems to b be search­ing for.

At t the Na­tional The The­atre, Lon­don, from 12 Septem­ber to 4 Oc­to­ber

Mark Fisher

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