When Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera) kills his father as a result of an intricate double-incest plot involving his sister Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), his uncle Ezekiel (played by Hervé Goffings) decrees that Mavuso will serve out his twenty-year sentence outside the prison, staring at its walls. Though he can leave whenever he chooses, his penalty will not have been paid. So Mavuso sits, and contemplates his actions in the face of growing interest from the prison and from the outside world (Omar Silva and Donald Sumpter). Will he overcome his impulses to kill? And how will his curious punishment change him?
The Prisoner appears to set out to pose deep questions about the human condition, and penetrate the themes of guilt, forgiveness, and redemption. Unfortunately, it’s one of those plays where ‘penetrating a theme’ comprises the character saying something relating to that theme, then leaving a long pause. (At one point Mavuso sits with his head in his hands in a very long silence, looks up at the sky and asks ‘Why did I kill him?’ before leaving another very long silence.)
Rather like Brook’s production of Battlefield last year at the Young Vic, it’s got an almost metaphysical flavour. I imagine people who go to see John Cage performed live would enjoy it. Its text is sutra-like in its pithiness and simplicity. This asceticism extends to production values: the smoke and mirrors of lighting, sound, and movement are almost entirely absent beyond the lightest touches, while the set is composed of a few knotted branches and patches of sand and dust.
Elsewhere, it’s more playful - at one point, Abeysekera climbs up onto the balcony and has a little moment with an audience member, and a sequence where Abeysekera creates a rat through only the movement of his hand under his cloak, making us fall in love with it before turning against it a moment later, is by far the strongest point of the show. It’s at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, though this is sorely absent in the first twenty-five minutes.
The cast all do exactly what is required within the framework of the production before them. Hiran Abeysekera as Mavuso displays impressive range across the course of his journey, and while the others play their parts admirably, the production doesn’t give the others huge amounts to do.
Eventually, though, It’s hard to escape the feeling that had a group of GCSE drama students or a young theatre company devised this production (none of which would be beyond a group of that calibre), It would be critically panned and wouldn’t evoke the same silent, reverent attention its press night audience rewarded it with. And it certainly wouldn’t be programmed at the National. Despite its minimalist, philosophical flavour, The Prisoner smacks of narcissism: a play by a great absentee master of the British stage we can go and see and feel we have been in the presence of ‘high’ art. Missable.