Simon Annand

The Prisoner

Reviewer's Rating

Somewhere in the world, a man is sitting alone in front of a prison. He has committed an unspeakable crime, and must not leave. All he has to survive in the desert is a blanket, a tin mug and a plastic jerry can. He has his father’s book, and occasional visitors. For almost the entirety of The Prisoner – The Lyceum’s final offering for the Edinburgh International Festival – Mafuso (played by Hiran Abeysekera) sits and stares at the audience.

The concept is certainly intriguing, and it is a shame that the end result never lives up to its promise. The whole play is something of a mess, trying to explore profound topics while never really saying anything at all. It seems to be a parable about many things: guilt and innocence, forgiveness and redemption, temptation and abstinence, but the play barely asks any actual questions about these subjects. It certainly does not provide any answers.

Part of the reason for this is that it manages to both say too much and not enough to be satisfying. We are told that the crime Mafuso has committed is unspeakable, but are then promptly told what it was. The choice of crime seems to have been made purely to shock, and as a result seems more tawdry than horrifying, as well as remaining far less shocking than it would have been if left to our own imaginations.

The whole play is rather like this. We are presumably supposed to wonder why Mafuso remains in his prison without walls, but his choice to remain is more tediously perplexing than intriguing. Characters wander on to the stage to offer gnomic statements or tell anecdotes, none of which seem to have much of a point or purpose. This all quite quickly becomes tiresome.

The play started life as a series of workshops, and it is probably these origins that lead to the occasional pleasing moments of fairy tale feeling, as years pass in moments and miles of traveling are represented in a turn around the stage. A rat is elegantly conjured from a simple fold of cloth, and food merely from the shape of a character’s fingers.

Overall though, the result is unsatisfactory, rather than profound. The Prisoner feels like a rather incohesive collection of ideas still waiting to be properly worked up, remaining trapped between workshop and fully-formed play

If the idea of a man sitting waiting, while characters occasionally pass by (on a stage adorned with bare tree branches, no less), seems familiar, then that is because it is. The intent may have been to recall Christ in the wilderness, with its themes of redemption and temptation. However, far stronger are the parallels with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which played at The Lyceum at the start of the Festival.

Unfortunately, the comparison is not kind to The Prisoner, which lacks any of Godot’s sharp wit and genuinely profound moments. If, somewhere in the world, a man is sitting alone in front of a prison, then somewhere not far away, Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. There might be a good play somewhere in The Prisoner, but it doesn’t come out here. Instead, you spend most of the performance wishing you were watching Estragon taking off his boot.