Full disclosure. The respect and admiration I have for Peter Brook is monumental. It’s not just that his seminal book, The Empty Space (scarily reaching its 50th anniversary this year) made me understand, for the first time, how it felt to feel truly inspired. Or that his approach to directing theatre and film has always seemed more about a belief than a process. It may seem hyperbole, but something about the whole package of Brook helped shape the person I am today.
Poorly constructed, cliché, quasi-religious philosophising.
It means however that fear and trepidation now battle with excitement of seeing his return here – to bring us new work, The Prisoner, originated at the Paris Bouffes du Nord home he set up forty years ago, when his parting words to London were that its “middle class” (ie West End) “theatre is deadly”. With my many diatribes against “Theatre for The Pretentious” – where one is sneered upon for not knowing that the writer / director / company are known for “the rhyming hyperbole thing, and the multivariate casting thing and the physically inside, metaphorically outside naked things which makes it apolitically politic and layered in intellect yet so easy to just ‘get’” – my fear was that I would be proven hypocrite, blinded by the shining lights atop the skyscraping pedestal on which I have placed the God, Brook.
Fortunately, I need not have worried. Unfortunately.
For what may possibly be the longest 75 minutes of sheer dullness it is possible to sit through, any such lights that could attain to this genius, are so seldom, so dim, that you will have a battle on your hands to remain fully awake throughout to catch them.
It’s the content that’s the problem, though you can see why Brook (and the company) felt it was something worth workshopping. During a trip to Afghanistan around forty years ago, Brook was told of a man who had spent most of his lifetime sitting alone in a desert outside of a prison, just facing it, though he was physically free. Brook says that whenever he mentions it, people have been intrigued and had many questions. That’s fair. It is intriguing. And if you can’t think of any questions, glance at the programme, where an astonishing SEVENTEEN of the 20 sentences in the introduction are just such questions. In fact, if you read these 17 out loud, you’ll quickly notice that the sound becomes monotone, repetitive, almost sing song and feels parody as the expected cadence for an answer remains empty. You’ll notice exactly the same very soon in to the play.
(Two questions aren’t listed but need to be raised: 1) Why didn’t Brook ASK them to find out more whilst he was in Afghanistan for Christ’s sake? and 2) If The Prisoner is a fair reflection of the tedium of conversation that followed such questions at those dinner parties, why didn’t those who had suffered before start interrupting with “No, no, no please let’s not do Afghanistan, ask Peter whether the actors went mad on the set of Marat/Sade or something. More wine?”?)
Brook and long time co-director Marie-Helene Estienne – also co-writer, astonishing as it is to believe it took two people to produce the poorly constructed, cliché, quasi-religious philosophising in the fortunately sparse text – may have accidentally stumbled on Plus Belle La Vie, the trashy French soap opera that prides itself on fantastically lurid storylines around dark family secrets. For the reasons they have given to the prisoner’s circumstances could have been lifted straight out of the Soap Opera 101 Plot Development handbook. It’s the well-worn “Brother finds Sister fucking Father; Brother kills Father; Uncle cripples Brother; Sister saves Brother; Brother wants to fuck Sister; Uncle puts Brother in prison; Uncle puts Brother out of prison; Sister has a child; Sister becomes Doctor” basic storyline that we’ve seen so many times before.
These bullet points of progression are usually signposted by a few words that may have been directly quoted from the sort of philosophising usually attempted at student parties where the munchies are common. Here the words are dispassionately mumbled by Herve Goffings – all deep sighs and eyes and arms aloft to the heavens – as the Uncle, though the reasons he has the authority is never explored. Mind you, even less explored or even acknowledged is that thing about… you know… the thing about fucking… which is possibly like extreme child abuse and… I don’t know… just might have had an impact on the woman? It seems neither of these points were felt important to the narrative.
For the majority of time though, we are in a deep silence – the type where the silence is so loud that you can hear the breathing and swallowing of the person next to you. As the prisoner himself Mavuso, Hiran Abeysekera creates a few moments of joy in this silence. His physicality changes as he fascinates with the tiny details around him whilst nothing real happens - other than the rolling lighting denoting the days, months, years, that pass. He befriends, plays with, then kills and eats a rat. He forages, cooks and eats dirt and vermin. It’s all mimed of course, and they are but tiny tiny moments, but these are the moments that show the genius of Peter Brook at work. It’s as though we are being teased with what could have been.
Why isn’t there more of this deftness of hand on display? Will The Prisoner be the last chance we get to see a new work at The National by the 93-year old Brook? Did the student get it right when he said after the show – and without irony – that Brook’s intent must be for the audience to experience the same levels of boredom and cluelessness as the prisoner himself must have done? Have I awarded an extra star than The Prisoner truly merits out of respect and admiration?
It is better for all of us when some questions stay unanswered.