Theatre review: The Prisoner, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

An open stage, the red earth of somewhere not European, a gnarled piece of tree trunk, lighting that suggests heat. In The Prisoner, the stage has a look that has come to be associated with the work of Peter Brook over his last four decades at the Bouffes Du Nord; and when an elderly white man appears (an understated and slightly self-mocking Donald Sumpter), it is, indeed, to introduce a story that began for him long ago, during a journey in a distant land.

The Prisoner
The Prisoner

The Prisoner, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh ****

Outside a prison somewhere in the desert, a man sits, staring at its walls. Asked what he is doing, he says that he is there “to repair”, or perhaps to repay; and our storyteller finds himself unable to forget the look in his eyes as he sits, held there by some sense of guilt or fate that is stronger than prison bars.

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In this version of the story by Peter Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, the perspective shifts so that the audience learns almost immediately what his story is and what crime he committed.

It is a peculiarly shocking one, committed under shocking circumstances; and it is questionable whether a director of a younger generation would have chosen to tangle with a story which actually implies a consensual sexual relationship between a 13-year-old girl and her father.

Yet for reasons that soon become clear, the man cannot believe in himself as a righteous avenger of the girl’s abuse; in Hiran Abeysekera’s beautiful central performance, we see him, over the years, feel his way towards a resolution, through his interactions – often random, but somehow meaningful – with local people, visitors, passers-by. And the whole show, at a brief 70 minutes, achieves a magnificent balance of stillness, relaxation and narrative tension; compelling us to pause, to breathe and to reflect, but also moving the story towards its end with the inevitability and energy of a natural force, harnessed by an absolute master.

Until 26 August