The Prisoner’s precise. It’s as perfectly formed as a ripple caused by a stone dropping cleanly into a lake. It’s a play about what punishment should be. It asks who has the right to mete it out, what form it should take and tells us to be wary of impure motives. It focuses on internal reckoning and rubs up abrasively against our western character driven theatrical diet. 

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, who have written the text together, make formidable creative partners. Previous works include The Suit and The Valley of Astonishment which found homes at the Young Vic. This new play takes over the National Theatre’s Dorfman to no less effect.

There is a blend of realism which Brook employs in his directing-or rather induces from his actors-which makes watching his productions and this one, a hyper-real, breathless experience. At the same time, co-directing with Estienne, everyday events-simple talks at someone’s house or a gander in a magical forest-are enthused with symbolic meaning. 

The story is inspired by a true event from Brook’s own past. A man sits in front of a prison day after day. He does not move. Brook dare not speak to him. The resulting play is a meditation on the reasons why. 

It’s a tough call to stop and look at one’s self and impart an internal reckoning after committing any kind of wrongdoing. Even tougher to “repair” in a calm and objective manner. Hiran Abeysekera’s Mavuso shows us this in minute detail. He has murdered his own father for sleeping with his sister Nadia, whom he himself lusts after. His uncle Ezekiel understands that society’s penitentiary system is corrupt and passes a graver punishment. Mavuso must sit outside a prison and meditate on his crime. Anyone else faced with members of their family committing such atrocities would surely crack. Western societies would demand justice and Hervé Goffings’ Ezekiel would have a breakdown and point his finger, like David Violi’s gnarled tree boughs, heavenward for answers. But this is a spiritual enquiry, asking serious questions about the appropriate responses to such a crime. To this effect, Goffing’s Ezekiel has a calming energy as soon as he enters the stage. His two feet are planted firmly on the ground, yet he walks as if he is walking on air. Not so Abeysekera’s Mavuso, who drags himself around as if he is Charon ferrying himself across the Styx. But, it is not that Ezekiel and Kalieaswari Srinivasan’s Nadia are not emotionally affected. In an approach perhaps alien to our society, they both suffer and support Mavuso. Before he is served his sentence, Ezekiel and Mavuso hold onto each other and a log which Nadia also caresses. Even in punishment Mavuso will not be left alone-Ezekiel and Nadia are not disconnected from him, but more bound.

This is really important. Who has the right to pass judgement and carry out the sentence other than those who can offer guiding support whilst it is being endured? Mavuso kills his father-the ultimate punishment-through jealousy and not because he thought his father was doing anything wrong. It means that we have to question the motive. Ezekiel, free from emotion induced revenge, can act objectively. Nadia is not like this. She too has to go on a developmental journey of her own to work out how best to channel her traumatised energies into something which is more useful. Ezekiel is as solid as the tree of wisdom they talk about in hushed tones whilst Mavuso and Nadia run around like lost dogs. 

Giving perspective on this mystical and deeply spiritual parable is Donald Sumpter’s wonderfully bemused Visitor-presumably representing Brook himself. He brings a humour and a candour which provides our way into this mysterious world. His comic objectivity allows the story to speak for itself without bias. Omar Silva’s Guard provides us with the missing link between the authority of the state and the justice system and Ezekiel’s preferred methodology. He almost acts the fool. He represents the normal every day person fearful of those who do not rely on the state to punish themselves. He finds Mavuso a slight nuisance, someone who is upsetting the status quo by his actions and dislikes this. By challenging the norm, Mavuso is disturbing the inner peace of others.

At the beginning of the play Brook and Estienne explore the meaning of “flow.” Of things not being disconnected from each other and actions being natural and organic, which can only happen with the banishment of the ego. It’s clear that prison is unnatural and stops the flow, stops the spirit from repairing and developing and becoming good again. So if society really believes in the inherent goodness present in everyone, why do we need prisons? Does society really want to believe in this original goodness? That’s a real question here.

The play is only one hour, but it feels epic. Every moment is like watching icicles form and melt away in Philippe Vialatte’s slow light changes. Something deeper is reached by actors and audience alike and for long moments, we are all connected with each other. This is what theatre is about.

Until 4th October

Photo: Hiran Abeysekera in The Prisoner.© Ryan Buchanan

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