Theater review by Helen Shaw
The mind that will enjoy Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s The Prisoner is one that’s more content in stillness than mine. Here is another of Brook and Estienne’s monkishly sere productions, again told in the barest manner possible. The actors speak slowly and emphatically. The set is a bare stage, sprinkled with wood chips and sticks. The text would fit in a thimble.
Caveat: The exoticist framing of this quasi-fable may make you feel a bit queasy. An earnest white woman, the Actor (Hayley Carmichael), tells us that she once “lay back in long grass” and felt at one with nature. In a quest to find that feeling again, she goes to a land where people live closer to their traditions. There she encounters a wise man called Ezechiel (Hervé Goffings), who tells her about his violent nephew, Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera). After murdering his own father for sleeping with his sister, Mavuso has been sentenced to sit on a hill opposite a desert prison, meditating on his guilt and becoming, in effect, his own jailer.
In The Prisoner's most affecting scene, Ezechiel takes Mavuso to say farewell to his beloved forest, since he might be sitting in the desert for the rest of his life. Abeysekera raises his hands to the balcony of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center and then gracefully raises himself up onto it, like a man climbing into branches. His exile on the hill is indeed long. The resulting asceticism makes Mavuso—who harbors his own profane love for his sister, Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan)—into something almost sacred. Jailers come out to meet him and share stories; nearby townspeople come to love him for his suffering. He is punished, certainly. But by remaining outside the prison’s walls, he also acts as a reparative force for those who see him.
The pace is glacial: Brook and Estienne leave enough space between the lines for a full meditation of your own. I admit that, because of this slowness and despite my sympathy with the play's anti-incarceration message, I don’t find the work entertaining or engrossing; it’s a challenging way to spend 70 minutes. The makers find something valuable in radically simple enactment and performance that I want to see too, but don’t. Yet it still feels meaningful to experience, like attending a church service in a religion you don’t believe in. The Prisoner offers deep moral seriousness and a chance to sit with the faithful in contemplation. If you need something like that in your practice too, then go. No other theater in town can offer it.
Theater for a New Audience (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.