Review: In ‘The Prisoner,’ Peter Brook Ponders Crime and Punishment

In the midst of the solemn starkness of “The Prisoner,” the new play by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, there’s a moment you will want to memorize and nurture. The title character, a young man who will soon begin serving a long sentence in a desert, is allowed one last visit to the forest where he played as a child.

The air vibrates with the songs of birds, and the man, Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera), answers them in shy whistles. His face, which has been fixed in blankness, opens up into a tentative smile. Like the boy he was, he climbs a tree — or to be literal, a pole leading to a balcony from the stage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, where “The Prisoner” opened on Monday night.

The inhabitants of the balcony look delighted as well as startled. And a warmth, as welcome as sunshine in February, spreads through the audience. No wonder that Mavuso has been told by his uncle, Ezekiel (Hervé Goffings), “I want you to keep this inside you. It will help you.”

The advice is worth heeding by anyone who sees “The Prisoner,” which has been brought to New York by the Theater for a New Audience. That sylvan interlude is one of the few glimmers of something like happiness in this cryptic production from the Paris-based C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.

The tree-climbing idyll is also a rare scene in which the audience may feel a direct connection to what’s happening onstage. As this tale of crime and punishment proceeds, you may find yourself wondering if Mavuso is indeed remembering his brief experience of freedom. The odds are that you at least will keep returning to it.

During a career that spans more than 70 years, Mr. Brook, 93, has forged an original vocabulary of playmaking whose influence cannot be underestimated. His watershed accomplishments include an airy, acrobatic “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from 1970, that redefined Shakespeare productions; the truly epic (as in nine-hour) “Mahabharata” (1985) and its smaller-scale but deeply affecting postscript, “Battlefield,” seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music two years ago.

“The Prisoner,” written and directed by Mr. Brook and his frequent collaborator Ms. Estienne, shares with those works a spartan and elliptical presentation that asks audience members to fill in blank spaces with their own imagination. What it lacks is the sense of inevitability of those earlier productions, the feeling that every gesture and image onstage is there for a reason and that if you just concentrate on what’s before you, a pattern and logic will emerge.

The problem may be, strangely, that the text here provides too much information. Inspired by an encounter from Mr. Brook’s travels in Afghanistan 40 years ago, “The Prisoner” is centered on a criminal whose punishment is to serve his sentence outside a jail, facing a building where inmates are confined to cells. He is technically free to leave, presumably, yet he does not.

In an interview with Artforum, Mr. Brook said he never learned the nature of the crime committed by the man he had met in Afghanistan. In “The Prisoner,” however, we discover early what Mavuso’s offense was. He found his sister, Nadia, in bed with his father, whom he killed on the spot.

It is implied that Mavuso, too, harbored sexual feelings for Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). It is she who heals Mavuso after their uncle, Ezekiel, has punished him physically, and she seeks him out during his exile. Mavuso sends her away in disgust.

Instead, he holds his vigil amid a landscape in which the scenic elements (by David Violi) are limited to parts of trees — a trunk, staff-like branches and wood shavings. Darkness falls and day dawns in a cosmic cycle of lighting (by Philippe Vialatte). Mavuso befriends — then kills and eats — a rat and is visited by townspeople and employees of the prison (portrayed by Ms. Srinivasan, Omar Silva and Hayley Carmichael, who also plays the Peter Brook-like narrator).

These encounters vary the show’s pace, but they aren’t particularly illuminating. Though it lasts only 75 minutes, the production feels long and oddly cluttered by its gnomic dialogue. (Ezekiel: “We dream, we think that what we do is right, but we are so often wrong, we want to possess everything without seeing that we have nothing.”)

Mavuso must learn to repair (not repent), we are told. Nadia tells her brother that his patricide was motivated by intolerance (of incest?) and a hate that “ate you.” Presumably, these are the feelings he must expunge.

Mr. Abeysekera has an appropriately haunted gaze. And the production is most involving when we watch him staring into space, silent, and perhaps thinking of that lovely, long-gone, fleeting moment when he was allowed to play in a forest like the innocent boy he once was.

The Prisoner

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