Writer and Director: Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Reviewer: S.E. Webster
Peter Brook, a titan of British theatre, has collaborated once again with Marie-Hélène Estienne to create The Prisoner, which first premiered in Paris earlier this year. With support from the Institut Français and a strong cast, it is disappointing to find that the drama falls flat and far below the high expectations the audience feels walking into the theatre.
The play is a bizarre one act meandering that is both macabre and conflicted. The attempts at black comedy are insipid and limp. It seems to strive towards becoming a 21st Century Waiting for Godot, but in reality has none of the mystery, intrigue or fascination that Beckett’s play holds. The beauty of Beckett is that we never know who Godot is or why we’re waiting for him, or even when he’ll come. Yet we know who the prisoner is and what he’s done from the very beginning of Brook’s drama – it’s as if someone has already seen the present that’s been wrapped up for them – there’s no surprise and the feeling is generally flat.
The set design is typical of Peter Brook, sparse and minimalist, with a few choice rocks and burnt out trees scattered across the stage. At times they’re intended to serve as walls, barriers and boundaries. Yet, the physical theatre elements lack polish and finish. It’s frustrating to see actors half-heartedly open, for example, what can only be assumed to be a door or suddenly walk through a wall that was apparently there moments before and into the next scene.
The passage of time, vaguely conveyed with unimaginative lighting, is difficult to process for the audience. It’s the same effect that TV dramas have when, in episode one someone discovers they’re pregnant and a bare week later in the following episode has given birth – with no time for any character development how can anyone expect the audience to empathise with the characters’ struggles? The same is true of The Prisoner, which at 1 hour 10 minutes running time and no interval gallops through 20 years of apparent misery and character contradictions – in one scene a vindictive uncle is crushing the legs of the protagonist, a couple of scenes later is practically marching him into the prison, and five minutes after that is suddenly benevolent and negotiates his release to sit outside the prison. The same is true of the sister who oscillates violently between revenge against Mavuso, to wanting to skip off into the sunset with him.
Most problematic of all is the play’s extremely warped attitude towards women. Repeatedly the focus is on the men; their suffering, their actions, their trials and tribulations. The play is obsessed and possessed by Mavuso’s crime of murdering his father but does not seem to bat an eyelid, or even attempt to condemn the mental and sexual abuse of Nadia by her father and the intended and desired abuse by her brother. In fact, the real victim of the piece, the only woman in this otherwise all-male play, stands up and verbally justifies the incest plot and sexual abuse against her. When Mavuso accusingly asks his uncle whether it was right what his father did, it turns out he does not mean abusing his sister, but instead he’s referring to his father sending him abroad so that he himself can’t have an illicit relationship with her. In a time where sexual abuse scandals are rife and the #Timesup and #MeToo movements are highlighting the enormity of historic and on-going abuse against women, The Prisoner is unhelpful as it is misguided. It is perhaps the least feminist play of 2018.
Runs until 26 August 2018 | Image: Ryan Buchanan