The Prisoner

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre)

Hiran Abeysekera Credit: Ryan Buchanan
Donald Sumpter, Omar Silva and Hiran Abeysekera Credit: Ryan Buchanan
Hervé Goffings and Kalieaswari Srinivasan Credit: Ryan Buchanan

Although he is now in his 90s, Peter Brook, whose career started in the 1940s, continues to create unique theatrical performances that rarely, if ever, disappoint.

Although there are imitators, 21st-century Brook productions are highly characteristic and instantly recognisable. They feature a multinational and multitalented cast of actors telling simple parables at a relatively leisurely pace, using minimal props and maximum theatrical technique.

However, what initially appears to be a tale that could be satisfactorily related in a couple of minutes almost always spins out to a gripping evening, in this case filling 70 psychologically fascinating minutes.

In the case of The Prisoner, as always these days co-written and co-directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne, the evening opens with a narrator played by Donald Sumpter talking about a visit he had made to an unnamed country. There, the Visitor enjoyed a chance encounter which sent him into a desert to meet or possibly spy upon a man who spends his days patiently staring at the walls of a prison.

While sitting amongst a few eccentrically shaped branches and rocks in an otherwise barren landscape, Hiran Abeysekera's Mavuso has much for which he needs to repent since, in the opening minutes, we discover that his sad story involves incest, resultant pregnancy and patricide.

Rather than spending 20 years in jail for murder, the protagonist is "saved" by the actions of his uncle Ezekiel, portrayed by HervéGoffings. In an apparently merciful gesture, the older man persuades the judge that Mavuso should be released but condemned to spend his days contemplating the prison in which he had been incarcerated.

This slowly brings the condemned man into contact with neighbours who resent his presence, his uncle and also the sister who unwittingly brought all of these problems upon the family but can do nothing to persuade Mavuso to show love.

The Prisoner is a typical Brook parable that turns into a morality tale. It will resonate with any audience thanks to downbeat directing, superlative acting and the knack of the very best writers who are knowingly manage to worm their way into viewers' subconscious minds, leaving them pondering on the underlying issues that matter long after leaving the theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher