Peter Brook may be a giant name in the theatre world, but The Prisoner shows how names do not guarantee anything when it comes to the stage. It’s a short play that never seems to end, with a philosophical premise that is questionably suitable for dramatic representation.
Presented as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, The Prisoner is a tale of a man (Hiran Abeysekera) whose punishment for killing his father is to sit in front of a prison for the next twenty years. Captivity without actually being incarcerated. Without any guards to watch him, he could leave any time – yet he bravely bears the punishment in order to redeem. It is a philosophically interesting topic but suited far more to a book than the stage. Not only does almost nothing happen for the play’s duration, but we – as audience – also gain precious little insight into the mind of the prisoner. A point of view which would be interesting, and seems essential, to hear.
The show addresses much but does little to discuss anything. One of The Prisoner‘s most prominent topics is the sexual relationships between family members: the father sleeps with his daughter (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) after his wife dies, and soon afterwards, the son kills his father for this deed because he, too, is in love with his sister. But other than acknowledging the existence of these relationships, The Prisoner does bafflingly little to problematise them on a human level. The show does not give the girl’s perspective on the whole situation, thus we have no idea how she feels about her life with father and brother. It goes so far as to represent the specific family situation as unproblematic: an everyday part of this “other” society in which people supposedly do not have complex feelings about the world they live in. Even Abeysekera’s character shares very few thoughts about his deed and imprisonment, rather it is on the audience to take away a profound message from the premise of open-space captivity.
Unfortunately, in this sense, the whole play reminds of those moral stories that “sophisticated white travellers” would recount after travelling “to the wild” in order to make themselves feel better and more civilized. It has been a long time since a show has made me feel so uncomfortable in thinking we did not get too far from Conrad’s 1899 Heart of Darkness.
A disappointing show from Brook does not make his great legacy any less valuable but it does remind us times are changing and so are the types of stories we want to see on stage. Welcoming international literature, theatre and thought are finally understood as different from presenting them as “the other”, from which we are to see how ‘well-off’ we are.