The Prisoner's Dilemma
RSC at the Barbican Pit
This third play in David Edgar's trilogy exploring the impact of the opening up of Eastern Europe is an intellectual delight.
Like its predecessor, Pentecost, it is a rich, deep play that in many ways has the structure and rhythms of a novel. It is a cross between a philosophical play of ideas and a political thriller. It also takes up one of Edgar's favourite themes, his love of language, but also his understanding of the ways in which it can be used to make war and broker peace.
The play is carefully structured to combine debate and often brutal action. This generally works well and is assisted by Es Devlin's simple design that ensures swift transitions between scenes.
The play commences in 1989 at a conference of politicians, diplomats and academics discussing contemporary issues. A group of half-a-dozen people is being moderated through a session of role-play based on Game Theory including the famous Prisoner's Dilemma. This also allows the protagonists to express their own political and moral views and sets the scene for the ensuing three hours. Perhaps the key is the ease with which people are able to deceive each other while remaining totally plausible.
The contrast between the theoretical debates of intellectuals and hard life on the frontline is immediately brought out as a naked man with a plastic bag over his head is wheeled on to stage and introduced as a representative of one side in a Baltic-style Russian conflict. His life is saved as he is used as a go-between in a complicated diplomatic manoeuvre.
The next stage of the peace process is carried out in the lounge of a Finnish family. As well as the home couple and their son, we are introduced to two pairs of negotiators. On one side, a larger than life military man, played by the excellent Trevor Cooper, and his usually quieter more diplomatic colleague, Robert Bowman, who does though provides one tremendously passionate explosion of temper. These are the representatives of a minority ruling power such as has been seen in parts of Yugoslavia and Ireland in recent times.
On the other side are the freedom fighters. The versatile Zoe Waites, last seen at the RSC cross-dressing in Twelfth Night is a very tough lady. Having lost her sister aged 15 in a pogrom, she is in no mood to compromise.
Along with the Finnish diplomat played by Penny Downie, Waites is the pivot around which the action and debate take place. It is a complement to them both and also to director, Michael Attenborough, that, despite the great complexity of David Edgar's plot, one rarely gets lost in the political machinations.
In many ways, Edgar has too many ideas on this subject area to fit into a single play or even a trilogy. His main success is in allowing his audience to empathise with not only both sides in the political struggle but also neutral diplomats and even on occasions, imperialists from America and former Soviet Union. In part, he achieves this through his use of gentle humour to represent "deeper truths".
He also builds up tension in debate exceptionally well and his device of using the diplomat's young son to embarrass the warring factions into compromise is both clever and perceptive.
This is a play that will fascinate anybody interested in the way that wars start and end. It will also act as a good analysis of where Eastern Europe has got to in the decade since the end of Communist rule.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher