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The Prisoner

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Four stars

A man enters a barren wilderness where he once went in search of something or someone. From the west, the man relays how he followed a lead, trying to fill in the gaps of a story about a man who committed a hideous crime, and who sat atop a hill for years staring at the prison walls beyond. So it goes at the start of Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s extended meditation on justice, incarceration and liberation.

Over seventy elliptical and surprisingly witty minutes, the young man at the play’s heart who left such a mark on the westerner is by turns banished, reviled and eventually accepted as a part of the landscape. Alone in the wilderness, the man holds court to resentful villagers and an increasingly amiable executioner as he wraps himself in psychological chains of his own making.

Inspired by Brook’s real life encounter with a prisoner sitting in the open air in Afghanistan, this philosophical enquiry is as spare as any quest for enlightenment in ways that recall Buddhist-tinged fictions from Walden by Henry David Thoreau to Big Sur by Jack Kerouac by way of Herman Hesse’s Siddharthur. Here, however, the stakes are higher, as Hiran Abeysekera’s prisoner first befriends, then kills a rat just as he killed his father, with both crime and punishment as extreme as anything from Greek tragedy.

As the centrepiece of Edinburgh International Festival’s mini season of work by Brook and Estienne’s Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, there is a delicious lightness at play, however profound the play’s contemplations. With Abeysekera leading an international cast that also features Herve Goffings, Omar Silva, Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Donald Sumpter, together they carve out something both spiritual and political, so when the prison is bulldozed away, a world without walls looks liberatingly within reach.

The Herald, August 24th 2018


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