When I was a junior in college, Peter Brook was staging an evening of Samuel Beckett’s short works at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Co-directed by Brook’s collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and presented by Theatre for a New Audience, Fragments had come to New York on a wave of acclaim. Near the close of a playwriting class I was taking at the time, the professor urged us all to travel to New York and see the production. “See it because it’s great,” he said, but there was also one more reason. “Peter Brook is dying,” the professor bluntly announced. “This will probably be his last production in New York. So you must go.”
If Peter Brook is dying, he is taking his sweet time about it. Brook brought The Valley of Astonishment to New York only three years later, also with Estienne, and now, at 93, returns to Theatre for a New Audience again with The Prisoner. More impressive still, Brook and Estienne continue to challenge both audiences and themselves with unconventional stories told in difficult theatrical forms.
The Prisoner tells the story of a murder and a punishment. The text is light on details, but here’s the basics: a man (played by Hiran Abeysekera) kills his own father after discovering him in bed with his sister (the father’s daughter). The man is initially placed in prison for this murder, but when prison proves unconstructive, his uncle (Hervé Goffings) steps in to arrange a new punishment: the man must sit atop a hill in a desert, facing a prison, and remain there until he judges himself deserving of freedom. Much of the play is spent atop this hill as the man lives in solitude. Passers by wander through, a mouse stops by, but mostly, the man is alone.
Brook and Estienne’s recent work has received some criticism for a lack of cultural specificity. Indeed The Prisoner does appear to take place in “an Eastern country,” which suggests some questions the text isn’t concerned with answering. Then again, its world is an entirely theatrical creation, an imagined hodgepodge of rules (both legal and cultural) that exist only on this stage, at this moment. There is a thrill to Brook and Estienne casting aside all recognizable setting and culture in favor of a world they have built, out of stolen bits and pieces, specifically to explore the question that interests them now.
That question centers around atonement. Many different contemporary cultures share the issue of a broken justice system. Many accept that locking someone away for years on end is a form of justice. But do we believe that those years in a box lead to true internal reformation? The Prisoner starts on the sort of clichéd point that true punishment comes from within, not from without. Where it delves deeper is depicting, in slow detail, the process of an individual reckoning with their own power to inflict pain on others.
In one scene, the man makes friends with a mouse (played winningly by Abeysekera’s finger), then unintentionally kills it just moments later. In another he roughly grabs his sister (a muted Kalieaswari Srinivasan), suggesting the sexual rage that spurred his crime. At another time the man is himself unsafe: two drunken prison guards wander by, mostly to poke at him. Though they ultimately prove harmless, the spectre of violence looms, just as the man’s own crime hangs in the air.
Brook and Estienne complement these reminders of human brutality with moments of connection, stillness and beauty. Particularly moving is the relationship between the man and a local town executioner who, for reasons he himself seems unsure of, decides to accommodate the man’s presence. Even scenes of the man alone prove engaging, thanks to Abeysekera’s warm and expressive performance. He captures both the man’s own journey as he grows into an understanding of his crime and the growth and change of the nature living around him. We feel both his within and his without.
The challenge of Brook and Estienne’s work isn’t just that it tackles one man’s process of atonement – as difficult a theatrical task as that is. Nor is it about the slowness of scenes or the spareness of staging, though they are and it is. The feat is in tackling both an issue and a character as one. Within the world Brook and Estienne have crafted, the man embodies a complex question, one full of contradictions and without easy answers. But he is also fully, completely, a man. His journey does not represent or sit alongside ideas – the ideas live within it, and he lives within them. It’s a tough feat, accomplished with care. I, for one, hope Brook and Estienne don’t slow down any time soon.