National Theatre Dorfman, 12th September 2018
OK. I should have known better. Having been bemused by Battlefield at the Young Vic in 2016 I still signed up for The Prisoner despite knowing full well I was likely set for a repeat experience. Peter Brook, and long time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, are theatrical royalty. The stripped back aesthetic, the philosophical questioning, the emotionally direct text: all this can reveal great truths. But it can also be hard work. Which is what this was.
I am far too simple, too young and insufficiently well versed in theatrical history to have seen Mr Brook’s revolutionary Shakespeare’s interpretations and I can’t speak French. I do have Adrian Lester’s Hamlet at the Old Vic from 2001 in the memory bank to understand just what PB and M-HE can conjure up. That had the assistance of one William Shakespeare however. The Prisoner is in their own words. It isn’t quite the same. Donald Sumpter is a Visitor come to some nameless place to see Ezekiel played bt Herve Goffings. He is the uncle of Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera) who has killed his father when he discovered the relationship between him and sister Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Mavuso is sentenced but is permitted to serve his punishment outside of a prison looking in, watched over by a Man (Omar Silva) and, sometimes, Guards. That’s it.
Why he does this and whether this constitutes justice are the central dilemmas of what was, frankly, a pretty long 75 minutes. It looked beautiful thanks to artfully placed “stage elements” from David Violi and the lighting design of Philippe Vialatte. The international cast performed with utter conviction. The pacing and sparse encouraged meditation but, with no tonal shift or any resolution, well other than when a mouse pitches up, soon became soporific. Drama with all of the drama deliberately sucked out. An old testament parable which might have been done and dusted in one verse. Beckett without the action or laughs (!).
I am ashamed to say this but the piece was beyond me. Still given that it is 50 years since Mr Brook last directed at the NT, and that is when it was still in the Old Vic, I am, perversely, glad I went. No-one said this culture vulture stuff would be easy after all.