“I am here to repair”, calls out our lead, surrounded by the sun-drenched desert. His story is entrapped by its own ideas, aesthetically interesting, but thematically stunted. The Prisoner is a strange fairy tale with an uncertain didactic message, and a pace that confounds logic. Written by the legendary Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, and with stars such as Donald Sumpter, you expect a masterpiece, but instead you end up rather lost.
The story is confusing, straight off the bat. We are introduced to a land where magic still exists, a mix of India and Africa, with music from both. This land is explored by Sumpter’s character, a pseudo-colonialist in search of such magic (all very Heart of Darkness, just without the racism). He discovers a man paying for a terrible crime by waiting in a desert outside a prison. All appropriately vague and mystical. I can only assume that this is intended as an anti-moralistic story, as incest, murder and betrayal follow soon after. The story seems to be make murder of one’s father punishable by mutilation and 20-something years in exile, but the statutory rape of a 13-year-old who happens to be the father’s child not really a problem. This wouldn’t be an issue if this was rooted in an actual culture, as it would be historical, but no. This is a fantastical place, a place still full of ‘magic’ (and apparently very backward ideas when it comes to intercourse with a child). What are the writers trying to say by this confusing confliction of morals? The answer is never really clear.
But the overall theme that will lose even the Mensa’s in the audience is not the only bump the play hits. The stage of the Dorfman theatre within The National is quite large, and it swamps the action of the four actors, swallowing them whole, making the movements stretched. A small venue would work much better for this piece. The writing also feels blocky and overloaded with rather obvious clichés. The overarching theme of forgiveness of oneself is overdone, and the dialogues bring nothing new to the topic. Like overly-violent revenge stories, haven’t journeys of internal self-discovery had their day? This play feels tired, and although similar to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is a pale reproduction, with none of the writing flair or skill. Although a man choosing to imprison himself in front of a prison is interesting philosophically, with a script as dry as the desert we are stranded like the prisoner, with very little to connect with.
The saving grace (small though it is) comes in the form of Hiran Abeysekera’s portrayal of the burdened prisoner, bringing conflict and indecisions to his bland surroundings. But even Abeysekera cannot inject enough spirit into this barren piece to make it enjoyable. The use of lighting over the twisted trees is beautiful and a forest scene created by bird songs was one of the only moments that I felt any connection to the play as a whole. The attempt to struggle with a philosophical idea of guilt and redemption is laudable, but what comes out is devoid of life or action. The Prisoner is self-indulgent and lacks the skill to convince the audience to be equally obsessed by its moral thrashing. Ultimately it fades into the shifting sands like a mirage.
The Prisoner is running at The National Theatre until 4 October. For more information and tickets, click here.