Writers and Directors: Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
London theatre is currently in existential crisis with two works by Albert Camus, The Plague and The Outsider, on at The Arcola and The Print Room respectively, and now The Prisoner by theatre legend Peter Brook comes to the National. This new play examines how we find freedom in an absurd life.
Having never really retired since he stepped down from Paris’s Bouffes du Nord Theatre in 2010, where he had been artistic director since 1974 with his theatre company International Centre for Theatre Research/Creation, 93-year-old Brook returns to the theatre working alongside his long-time collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne. This formidable partnership still seems to have plenty to say.
Donald Sumpter plays The Visitor who has come to a country because it is so alive with traditions, but it’s also a country whose traditions demand that criminals are brutally punished, that prisoners are decapitated and where incest is tolerated. In this country, The Visitor hears of a man who sits outside a prison in the middle of a desert. Should this man be let in, or is he in a prison of his own making?
The Prisoner is an Oedipal tale verging on the absurd. Everyday, for Mavuso, the man sat outside the prison, is the same, but to the prisoners and the inhabitants of the nearby village, he becomes a wise man, a sort of hermit. Acted earnestly with very little fuss in the way of set and special effects, the cast of five are sedate and measured, but overall the play is not as profound as it wants to be.
The National’s Dorfman has been hollowed out to such an extent it seems as if the stage is a school’s gym hall. However, despite the expansive space, much of the action happens so close to the front of the stage that even the third row are straining their necks to see what is going on, and every gesture here is important. This is stripped-down theatre, even extending to the running time, which is a nifty 70 minutes.
As the eponymous prisoner, Hiran Abeysekera is so charming with his bright eyes and innocent smiles that it’s all too easy to forgive his crimes, and that may be the point of the play: that forgiveness is not so out of reach as we thought.
Runs until 4 October 2018 | Image: Ryan Buchanan