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‘The Prisoner’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

This latest parable from the legendary Peter Brook is ponderous and dull

Even though it only clocks in at just over an hour long, ‘The Prisoner’, by legendary theatre director Peter Brook, is thin fare.

A curious visitor to a foreign land tells the story of Mavuso, condemned by his uncle to sit alone in front of a white prison for many years – as punishment for killing his father after finding him in bed with his sister. The visitor feels compelled to go and see him.

The perennially excellent Donald Sumpter, playing more than one role, brings all the dust of a long journey to his understated portrayal of the visitor, and a welcome blast of humour to a gin-soaked prison guard. Meanwhile, Hiran Abeysekera imbues Mavuso with a quicksilver temper, embodying his inner conflict with clenched physicality.

There’s the same fascination here with the transmission of storytelling that we’ve seen in Brook and his long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne’s other recent work, like ‘Battlefield’. While this production is inspired by something Brook actually saw in Afghanistan, it’s definitely a parable in tone.

Brook’s dislike of the ‘embellishments’ of traditional theatre results in a spare staging that revels in its lack of propulsion. The forward beat of other, louder shows is missing. We watch Mavuso sit motionless as the sun comes up and goes down several times. There’s something almost calming about it at times.

But it’s also loaded with its own sense of self-importance, and if you’re going to do that, you better have something more than atmosphere to offer. What Mavuso learns about carrying his prison with him feels, frankly, like a pretty meagre payoff if you’re going to explore questions about guilt, punishment and society.    

There’s also the quasi-mystical portrayal of another culture that comes off as increasingly condescending, unhappily complete with a white Westerner to introduce us to the ‘mystery’ of it all.

The play is full of these odd missteps, like shunting Nadia – the daughter and sister – offstage, without really exploring her sexual abuse as anything more than a life lesson for her brother (who, it transpires, is also in love with her). It all falls pretty flat.

Written by
Tom Wicker


£15-£45. Runs 1hr 15min
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