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Review: The Prisoner at the National Theatre

A beautifully acted play by theatrical magician Peter Brook

21 September, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Donald Sumpter and Hiran Abeysekera in The Prisoner. Photo: Ryan Buchanan

The Prisoner lasts only 75 minutes but it is an impressive piece of theatre, created by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne earlier this year for his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris.

On a stage littered with tree branches and trunk fragments but otherwise bare, a man (Donald Sumpter) enters, engages with the audience and tells how travelling through a wood and across a desert he found a man sitting on a hill in front of a prison.

What was this man’s story? We see it enacted. He is Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera), who killed his father when he found him in bed with his sister. Was this truly because he had broken a powerful taboo or was it because he too was in love with his sister and jealous? He isn’t sure, but either way knows he is guilty, he wants to be judged and he accepts punishment.

He could walk away but he stays there, though here in the open, looking at a jail so packed with prisoners there are frequent suicides, he says: “I don’t feel the punishment: I feel nothing.” But he is told he will feel it and when he does that will be the end of his sentence.

It is a play where the action is the birdsong and sounds of the forest, daylight and night time as the years pass. A rare visit from Mavuso’s uncle Ezekiel (Hervé Goffings) who has been his judge, his sister Nadia (gentle Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a local woodcutter turned prison executioner (Omar Silva) and a couple of prison guards. The real action is in Mavuso’s head.

In a simplicity of stillness there are moments of movement. Mavuso makes a friend of a rat (brought to life by a hand under his shawl’s fabric). When it bites him he kills and eats it. The guards bring gin and encourage a singsong. The woodcutter complains that he is taking the villager’s water, but watching Mavuso’s eyes this seems more like a meditation on – well, what?

This play is beautifully acted and holds concentration on and in every moment. Peter Brook has always been a theatrical magician, he can make you see things that are not there and perhaps this time it is an illusion that he and his collaborator are saying something important about justice, responsibility, self-forgiveness, the prison each builds for themselves for it doesn’t develop such themes.

But theatre is always a matter of actor and audience, and the meaning here may lie in what you bring to it.

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