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The Prisoner

Review - The Prisoner at the National Theatre (Dorfman)

Will Longman
Will Longman

There are 53 places in the world where punishment by death is still legal, in the UK range from 12 years to whole life imprisonment, but in Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's land - found in the Dorfman at the National Theatre - one convict spends his sentence out in the open, staring at the prison before him.

Mavuso murdered his father after he found him in bed with his daughter - Mavuso's sister - Nadia. As part of the traditional punishment process in this unnamed, desert country - played out on a set much like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, only a few dying trees on a sparse stage -  his uncle Ezechiel punishes him by branding his legs, before sending him off to prison.

But when Ezichiel lands a deal with the judge, they agree Mavuso can serve an alternative sentence: to sit, solitarily, staring at the walls of the prison to "repair himself". He becomes infamous inside the prison, where the inmates become fascinated with 'the man on the hill', and nearby villagers visit when they become aware he's stealing their water and food.

Eventually, Nadia visits to convince him to return and help care for her daughter, but Mavuso remains on the hill for at least a decade, until he is ready to integrate himself again.

Fascinating stuff, the idea of punishing one's self until you feel 'repaired'. How do you know when you have punished yourself enough?

Despite the piece being poignantly acted by Hiran Abeysekera as Mavuso, who manages to chug the story along at a steady pace, the production falls flat when it aims for depth and symbolism. Long periods of Mavuso staring at the prison become tired and drag, and stretch out what is an engrossing concept into something quite drawn-out.

Abeysekera brings some much-needed life to the piece, especially when his character befriends a small mouse for company, or when he turns his sister - who he is in love with - away after years away from her. 

As Ezechiel, Hervé Goffings wields moral authority - but why? Why does Mavuso feel such an obligation to him to punish himself, when we know his family bond is weak enough that he will murder is own father.

Philippe Vialatte's subtle lighting transforms the large, vacant stage space nicely, but when the lights have dipped for the third or fourth time to signify time passing, it becomes predictable, lacklustre.

Brook and Estienne's exploration of justice seems to be a half-baked melting pot, full of interesting snapshots, but results in a piece that, despite its swift 70-minute running time, lingers a little too long on the surface without digging deeper.

The Prisoner is at the National Theatre until 4th October. 

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