Friday, 24 August 2018

EIF 2018 - The Prisoner at the Lyceum, or, A Thin Narrative about the Consequences of Incest

This was my first encounter with the legendary theatre director Peter Brook. I'm afraid on the basis of this show I found it difficult to see why he is so highly regarded.

The text of this 70 minute show, written by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne appeared to me to be set in Africa (though the mixed nationalities of the ensemble confuses this). It is intermittently framed by a white narrator (Donald Sumpter). The thin story concerns a boy (Hiran Abeysekera) who kills his father because he discovers he is sleeping with his sister (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). He is beaten by his uncle (Herve Goffings) but, for reasons unclear, this beating doesn't render sufficient punishment and the uncle then persuades the unseen local judge that instead of locking the boy up he should be told to sit on a hilltop overlooking the prison. There, despite being free to leave at any time, his own conscience or spirit will compel him to stay until he knows he has completed his punishment.


Motivations for why any of them have done what they have done are rather thinly drawn. There are also some eyebrow raising moments - the most notable for me was the sister thanking the uncle for all he has done for her - this includes, as the uncle has earlier admitted, turning a completely blind eye to her father's abuse of her. Abrupt decisions are also a feature - for example the daughter suddenly declaring she'll renounce her love for her brother (did I forget to mention they are also desperate to get into bed with each other) and go and become a doctor. The effects of all this were both to undermine my belief in the narrative, and to reduce my emotional engagement with it - most of the time the play failed to make me care about the fate of these characters.

The work also suffers from being programmed alongside Druid's very strong Waiting for Godot. Brook and Estienne are evidently anxious to make profound statements about the nature of existence, punishment, what it means to be in prison and so forth. But the attempts to do so feel strained. The text lacks Beckett's depth, wit, and poetry.

Nor is it a play rescued by the performances. Sumpter is the strongest, his experience showing in his delivery of the text which enables him to go furthest in disguising its weaknesses. Both Goffings and Abeysekera have strong physical presence but they come across less well in delivery. I couldn't help feeling that a better showcase for many of these performers would have been a production actually from Africa or India rather than this version of one of those places put into English and mediated through Brook.

Brook is apparently famed for his use of the bare stage. It is indeed fairly empty here - a few sticks simulating trees and other features, bits of straw, the odd prop. I didn't miss the absence of more set, but it has nothing like the punch of the equally if not more bare Godot staging.

This undistinguished show ends what has been a disappointing festival residency from Theatres des Bouffes du Nord. It travels on to the National Theatre's Dorfman space in September. My advice to the National however would be to dump this and substitute Midsummer (playing the Hub for three more days which I also saw last night) - a much better play, not least because it's both fun and moving. In the meantime this is missable.

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