The Prisoner – Edinburgh International Festival

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s latest collaboration comes to the Lyceum stage in Edinburgh, to start discussions on the nature of forgiveness, punishment, and atonement. It’s an hour of artful storytelling, but one that unfortunately lacks much of the body that it promises. However, the many elements of the play work together to create a deeply personal piece.

One of the main focuses of the work is its proximity to the audience. When we enter the theatre, the curtain is already up, exposing the bare stage on which are scattered some sticks and straw. The play begins with the house lights still on; Donald Sumpter walks onstage and speaks directly to us, as if we, too, are part of the story he tells. It’s one of Mabuso (Hiran Abeysekera), a boy who murders his father, and is sentenced to sit facing a prison for twenty years. Though physically free to leave, he must choose to stay in order to ‘repair’. For the length of his punishment, Abeysekera is looking into our eyes, inviting us into his self-made prison.

The play features incredibly strong performances from the whole cast, particularly Abeysekera, who portrays the psychological turmoil that Mabuso experiences in his punishment. Hervé Goffings, as both Mabuso’s uncle and his father, is the voice of justice and wisdom; Kalieaswari Srinivasan’s Nadia shows a deeply satisfying character arc – from being hopelessly in love with Mabuso, to realising her own potential and leaving to study medicine. I particularly enjoyed the friendship developed between Mabuso and Omar Silva’s ‘Man From The Village’. Their bond spans the decades, and while it is one of few words, its impact is felt throughout.

Perhaps one of the biggest strengths of the piece is its mise-en-scène – a joint effort by Philippe Vialatte, David Violi, Alice François, and Brook and Estienne. The set is deliberately sparse, and props and costumes are unembellished, such that the work strips away the clutter of theatre and returns to the most basic of storytelling. We as an audience must use our imagination to furnish the story. The cast all play multiple characters, and provide the special effects for scenes themselves – like Srinivasan’s forest sounds, or Abeysekera’s use of a blanket and his own hand to simulate a rat. It’s genuinely satisfying to witness high-quality theatre working with such few tools, demonstrating that the art of storytelling is in physicality, in words, and in allowing the mind to run free.

While the play promises to ‘penetrate the richness’ of the themes of punishment, justice, and retribution, I found that it failed to go all the way with this. It was indeed powerful, and started conversations of whether all punishment is self-inflicted, whether justice can be decided by oneself, and what it means to be forgiven. Yet it felt that such questions fail to resonate with the plot – a patricide by someone committing incest with their sister. While Mabuso cannot help but love Nadia (and even this is a point of contention), he could definitely have kept from murdering his father, and as such, the questions of morality and forgiving oneself feel off-key. Yet the work is beautiful, and opens up compelling debates on what a prisoner truly is, so perhaps I am missing the point.

On quite another note, I really enjoyed the fact that 80% of the cast were people of colour. To tell multi-faceted stories for non-white characters should be one of the main aims of the arts at the moment, and this play succeeds in that.

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Lucie Vovk

Lucie Vovk

Fourth year student in English literature and Scandinavian studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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