Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s The Prisoner at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn is a tale of incest and punishment evocative of Greek tragedy. It is performed as if by a traveling troupe of actors wandering from village to village in an ahistorical world. The 93-year-old Brook, who has been directing theater since his 1943 London premiere, co-founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris. Since 1974 it has been housed in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, where The Prisoner originated.
Except for occasional mentions of modern technology in the narrative, the script and performance style of The Prisoner strive for a timeless quality, “a myth or a parable,” as Brook and Estienne describe it in the program note. The set was “very Waiting for Godot,” as I heard an audience member quip, and the sole upright staff at the back of the stage did evoke the lonely tree in Beckett’s play. The stage was stripped back to expose its lighting and mechanics. A tree stump was placed on the floor, along with a few assorted poles of unfinished timber, resting on the floor and against the walls, and small bits of wood strewn around. The set was elemental, natural, spare, and lightly poetic, befitting the style of the story.
The white narrator (among a cast of people of color) tells a story, apparently based on Brook’s own experience in Afghanistan, of discovering a man condemned to sit perpetually outside a prison. In Brook and Estienne’s imagining, the man killed his father when the father discovered that his son and daughter were committing incest. The son accepts the punishment dictated by his uncle as a village elder. In fact, the son is so committed to his remorse that he resists his sister’s call to give up his punitive vigil and even remains at the site after the prison is destroyed.
The diverse cast (Hiran Abeysekera, Hayley Carmichael , Hervé Goffings , Omar Silva, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan), costumed in mute grays and blacks, quietly command attention. The acting style, occasionally veering into pantomime, made frank use of the artificiality of the stage: for example, to change the scene, the actors walked in a short circle, and there was a slight shift in the lighting. The restrained simplicity of the production encouraged the spectators to co-create the world of the story in their imagination. The acting was realistic enough for me, however, when the uncle ground his staff into the prisoner’s legs as the first part of his punishment and the prisoner screamed and writhed in agony.
The prisoner spends his days contemplating his crime, staring at the walls of the institution from his place outside of it. That he does not run away or protest his sentence speaks to themes of duty, virtue, and ideals that are not easily embraced by most people in daily life. These themes elevate the protagonist and the story of The Prisoner to a higher plane of social contemplation.
The best part of the performance is when the prisoner sits and stares into the distance. Nothing happens, and nothing is said for a time. Such onstage silence can be excruciating. But in this case, for a few moments, with the prisoner’s dark eyes locked onto the horizon, his experience of the heat, the desolation of his outpost, and his remorse for his unspeakable crime come to life. The eternity of waiting and the irreversibility of time spread like a smothering, oppressive cloud around him.
Eventually, the storyline eases back into the modern world, as the sister leaves the village and studies to become a doctor. This shift in her status is indicated by a change of costume, from a modified black and gray sari to a black and gray suit jacket.
In his despair, the prisoner cultivates a bit of hope by watering a tiny tree, and gradually he befriends an intruder who at first demands, on behalf of the neighboring village, that he leave the area. By choosing to demonstrate the power of ethical behavior, even in this extreme context, Brook and Estienne plant a seed of hope that humankind can redeem itself.
A co-production by CICT/Theatre Des Bouffes Du Nord, Theatre for a New Audience, National Theatre London, The Grotowski Institute, Wroclaw, Ruhrfestspiele Reckinghausen, and Yale Repertory Theatre, The Prisoner runs through December 16 at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.