Sophie Adnitt reviews The Prisoner now playing at The National Theatre with text by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.
Did I miss something?
At least that’s what I asked myself as I left The National’s Peter Brook-directed production of The Prisoner. Whilst the applause had been fairly consistent at the curtain call (and even a few whoops issuing from the upper levels), and I’ve since seen some tweets praising it highly, personally I left the theatre completely baffled. It certainly takes the crown for being the most confusing piece of theatre I’ve seen yet this year, never quite sure what it’s meant to be or if it wants to carry any particular message.
The titular prisoner of the piece is Mavuso, played capably and with admirable physicality by Hiran Abeysekera, onstage for the vast majority of the evening. Mavuso commits a murder early on in proceedings (and offstage) and as punishment, is banished by his uncle Ezekiel (Hervé Goffings) to sit outside a vast desert prison. And stare at it. Which he proceeds to do for the next ten years. Day in. Day out. Sometimes people visit him. Sometimes they talk about justice. Other times they make jokes about prostitutes and drink gin.
The action takes place in what is undeniably a desert, and the minimal design creates a sparse, sun-baked, forsaken place with great effectiveness. Sound is also used sparingly, but well, one particular highlight being when Ezekiel walks through a forest with young Mavuso – the rest of the cast mimic bird calls and other sounds of the environment.
The show’s narrative is wrapped up in a rather clunky framing device of a white, male traveller (Donald Sumpter), doing a bit of poverty tourism. Every so often we flash back to Mavuso’s sister Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), whose trauma and abuse is played for drama and then shrugged off with alarmingly little effort.
It also seems a bit cheeky to market this play on Peter Brook’s famous direction when it’s one of the most immensely unimaginative stagings I’ve seen for a very long time. People walk on, people walk off. Vast stretches of action are set with characters lying or sitting on the ground, which means they’re invisible to anyone beyond the second row. Eventually the audience gives up trying to see. It speaks volumes that an early moment where Mavuso begins to scale the side of the theatre is a visual highlight – surely these sight issues should have been bought up in rehearsal? Long, yawning silences kill the pace stone dead and at one point a series of lighting states indicating the passing of days verges on beyond a joke lengthwise. Omar Silva, doubling as a guard and a local man, injects some well needed energy into proceedings when he appears, but he’s unfortunately just not kept onstage long enough.
The script, co-penned by Brook and his fellow co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne, meanders along with such aimlessness, scattered with ‘forgive and forget’ cliches, that it starts to feel like a sentence as interminable as Mavuso’s. Thankfully there is a little humour sprinkled in, not least when Mavuso is told that after ten years banishment his punishment can finally begin.
“Now?!” He asks, incredulous “then what have I been doing here all this time?” Well, my sentiments exactly.
Unforgivably dull and embarrassingly lacklustre, The Prisoner is a great disappointment from a theatre legend.
Until 4 November 2018