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The Prisoner review at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘intriguing but impenetrable’

Donald Sumpter and Hiran Abeysekera in The Prisoner at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Ryan Buchanan
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In The Prisoner, Peter Brook’s new work with long-term collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, they turn their eyes on the exotic – but the result reveals a lot more about them, than the things they are looking at.

It is tempting to position this as a great statement by a revered figure of the theatre. But it feels more like s a thought experiment instigated by Brook and brought to life through a series of workshops. In that, at least, he has caught something of modern trends.

The idea is intriguing: what happens if you remove a prisoner from their physical prison, and place them outside its gates, gazing on it and those inside, contemplating their own crime? Ostensibly free, they are tied through their conscience to their penance, leading to questions of the nature of prison and whether it equates to life itself.

The staging is equally enticing. David Violi’s set has the appearance of a blasted heath upon which Godot’s tree has been rent asunder. The tree’s various parts serve the narrative – a poisoned branch is both an instrument of retribution and support, broken branches become a prison cell and hewn logs both a seat and hiding place.

Where this is, however, is another thing entirely. Donald Sumpter’s nameless narrator casually talks of lands where the houses are not white but brown. Code, it would seem, from the only white actor, which makes it not a universal anywhere, but specifically in a non-white land.

Sumpter talks of how his gaze changes events – by observing a man drinking tea, he is offered and accepts some. He visits a wise man, Herve Goffings’ calm Ezekiel, who answers metaphor with fact and sends him to his nephew Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera), incarcerated for an “unspeakable” crime.

The crime itself is positively Homeric: Mavuso killed his father, who was in bed with Mavuso’s sister Nora. Ezekiel gave a traditional punishment designed to kill the boy but, when he survived, sent him to be tried by the courts.

Beautifully presented, and created with calm singularity of movement and poise from an impeccable cast, it is nevertheless hugely conflicting, thanks to Ezekiel’s knowledge of his brother’s incest since Nora was 13. Nora is apparently to blame and is never seen as victim but perpetrator, thanks to Mavuso’s own feelings for her.

The framing of it all as exotic is also darkly troubling, as it makes it exclusive rather than inclusive, the multinational cast members are ‘other’, while the narrator asks but will not accept what he is offered.

The questions then become confused, the metaphors impenetrable, and the issue of who is the criminal, who the prisoner and who the observed becomes convoluted beyond resolution or care.

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Confused, impenetrable production that looks great but drowns in its own stylistic simplicity