The Prisoner at the National Theatre
How do you forgive yourself after committing a horrendous crime? What is the meaning of justice? These questions are proposed – but never solved – in The Prisoner, the most recent collaboration between Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.
The premise is simple, but full of potential. Masuvo (Hiran Abeysekera) murders his father for his incestuous abuse of his then 13-year-old sister, Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Because of the flawed justice system in this country – which is never mentioned by name – Masuvo escapes confinement. His uncle Ezekiel (Hervé Goffings), however, acts as a moral guide and convinces the murderer to sit in the desert and look upon a prison from the outside – for a total of 20 years. He’ll know when he’s ready, Ezekiel tells him.
The play frequently conjures up interesting situations, conflicts, and room for character development, but never explores them sufficiently. As a result, a lot of it feels incomplete or muddy, making it difficult to trace the purpose of the writing. One example is Masuvo’s anger problems – he slaughters a rat he previously befriended, and later he almost strangles his sister to death. But rather than seeing him struggle with his vices, he’s suddenly enlightened at the end of the show. He has forgiven himself, he can leave his self-confinement, all’s well that ends well.
Even the work’s morality is somewhat confused. While Ezekiel’s preaching about self-forgiveness seems like a worthy piece of wisdom to attain, the issue of child abuse remains unresolved throughout. Nadia’s entire character arc involves her forgiving Masuvo and leaving the country to become a doctor.
These flaws are particularly frustrating because The Prisoner does evoke a whole range of interesting questions. How does one deal with having committed murder? How does one learn to forgive oneself? What does one do in the knowledge that they deserve punishment but there’s no one there to enforce it?
It’s still reasonably entertaining, if just for the fact that the entire production is immaculate. Abeysekera’s Masuvo is convincingly acted and delicately handled, and Goffings’s Ezekiel is the perfect moral guide. David Violi’s stage design is equally brilliant, using just a handful of props to bring the whole grotesque situation to life.
The Prisoner is full of potential and raises many profound questions. Featuring excellent acting, a lovely stage design and good directing, it is perfectly entertaining – if only it wasn’t for the muddiness of the script.
Photo: Ryan Buchanan
The Prisoner is at the National Theatre from 12th September until 4th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.