Coming to the National Theatre after opening first at Paris’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, then at Edinburgh International Festival, Peter Brook’s latest theatrical offering is The Prisoner, which he has co-directed alongside longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. It is the story of a man named Mavuso, who murders his father after catching him in the act of raping his sister, Nadia. For his crime, Mavuso is sentenced to sit opposite and look at the local prison. He is not permitted to enter it, nor is he permitted to leave the spot – much to the bewilderment of the locals. Meanwhile, Nadia’s rape has resulted in a pregnancy. She blames herself for this and resolves to become a doctor to deal with her guilt.
For a performance of just 75 minutes, the action is painfully slow. The lack of dialogue creates excruciating silences and the words that do exist are so sparse and abstract, it is difficult to make sense of any storyline that might exist. The tale is introduced and concluded by a narrator, but it mostly runs of its own accord. We meet some additional – stiffly performed – characters throughout: a couple of drunken guards, a mysterious uncle figure, a village local-cum-executioner, and a flirty invisible rodent. None of them seem to enhance or even to service the narrative.
David Violi’s set continues the abstract theme that runs through this piece. Unfortunately, his design of a bare black box filled with randomly placed twigs is engulfed by the Dorfman space and fails to provide the intimacy the piece probably needs. Philippe Vialatte’s lighting is bold but incongruous to what is happening beneath it – light is not always day and dark is not always night. The combination of these elements makes it difficult to place the action in space, place or time.
If, like me, you have no idea who Peter Brook is, it’s likely you’ll also be baffled by this choice in programming by the National. Especially after the year of successful productions the Dorfman has enjoyed. It is undeniable that he is a formidable figure; his career spans more than six decades, he’s won multiple Tony and Emmy Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, the Praemium Award and the Prix Italia. Some say he is ‘our greatest living theatre director’. The Prisoner was definitely not evidence of this acclaim.
At the end of the show, bemused groups of audience members huddled outside the doors of the Dorfman trying to make sense of it all. It made me wonder – would this play have been programmed if Peter Brook’s name was not attached to it?
The Prisoner is on at the National Theatre until 4th October. More info here.