The Prisoner Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
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