American company Burning Coal revives three of David Edgar’s plays on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Your reviewer saw The Prisoner’s Dilemma; the other two in the Iron Curtain Trilogy are The Shape of the Table and Pentecost. The Prisoner’s Dilemma revolves around behind-the-scenes peace talks between young post-Soviet nations, but the playwright centres the action on the fictional states of Kavkhazia and Drozhdania (the latter of which is a Muslim country contained within Kavkhazia). Finnish diplomat Gina Olsson (Jeanine Frost) puts herself forward as facilitator for an architecture of peace, entering a semantic discussion over terminology and the difference between ‘legalising’ and ‘legitimising’. When American professor Tom Rothman (Marc Carver) introduces game theory and the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ as a means to further the meeting, Edgar projects the theory onto the conflict and imagines the partners as playing the role of separately kept prisoners invited to rat on each other.
The play is full of intellectual conversation about both the nature of diplomacy and the conflict itself. The large cast (I counted 19 people) all represent a political position, and this does not help to tease out the human aspect of a complex narrative like this one. The cerebral bravura sometimes stimulates but in the two-and-a-half hours most often the attention wavers. It’s simply too much like looking at a lecture played out rather than a play. The meandering of minor disputes to illustrate the overarching dilemma is tiresome; we don’t believe in the passion for their cause the characters occasionally display (and in some cases all too sudden and unconvincingly). The use of Olsson’s precocious child (David Skaggs) to lighten the mood with cute remarks works as little on stage as it helps to bring the parties, convening in the Finnish home, together.
The staging isn’t flawless. Actors trip over their lines just once or twice too many times, and scene changes look under-rehearsed. It adds to the sense that this is a play to read rather than hear or see. Some of the information is repeated too, and many nationalist jokes fall flat, missing their target of adding a light touch to the drama. There is also too much speaking in foreign languages, which does nothing to further the action. Whether it’s the writing or the production isn’t always clear, but on the whole I felt this work could do with a great deal more dynamism.
The production takes us from Santa Cruz to the middle of the conflict in Kavkhazia, then to Finland and to Geneva, where a treaty will be signed. When the play ends, in 2001, we’re back in the eastern Mediterranean to witness what more than a decade of talks have produced. Whilst the second half of the play is more eventful and does reveal more of the humanity involved, it really is too late. A work of political insight and intelligence, but the flaws in staging and the density of the material severely diminish the academic brilliance that lies within The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is playing at The Cockpit until 30 November. For more information and tickets, see the Cockpit Theatre website.