The National Theatre’s The Prisoner is a moving example of Peter Brook’s “late style”

The playwright’s latest work nods most fondly to two classical texts he is connected with: Oedipus and Hamlet.

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Two Peters – Brook and Hall – were the leading directors of English classical theatre after the Second World War. Their work went in radically different directions: Hall ran big buildings (the RSC and National) and encouraged new writers, while Brook retreated to Paris, working at a small customised playhouse on experimental, trans-cultural works, researched and rehearsed for years.

Yet though Brook was the elder of the two men, he has remarkably, at the age of 93, brought his latest work, The Prisoner, to London only a week after Hall’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey. The coincidence is poignant and instructive. Hall’s published Diaries, while agonising over some fight with the government, Arts Council or theatre unions, wander into envious reveries about Brook, who represented a servant of art in a country committed to culture. Just after celebrating Hall heroically getting his hands dirty in the engine room of theatre, we get to reflect on the fruits of Brook’s easier, cleaner career.

Artistic “late style”, Edward Said argued, tends towards a concentrated presentation of a career’s themes and techniques, often with a stubborn final attempt to resolve obsessive contradictions and obsessions. The Prisoner can, without insensitivity, be described as an extreme example of this.

A touching sequence in the play – co-directed by Brook’s frequent collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne – involves birdsong, echoing The Conference of the Birds, Brook’s fabled nomadic production based on a 12th-century Arabic text. The modern writer who most influenced him is Samuel Beckett, and the set that David Violi has created might easily double for a production of Waiting for Godot: a few rocks and branches stand on a stage dirtied with earth.

A narrator called the Visitor – played by Donald Sumpter, a presumably deliberate bald, beaky lookalike of Brook – glosses the setting as “a faraway country”, but the casting suggests Africa, setting for Brook-Estienne pieces including The Iks (about a Ugandan tribe), The Suit (from a book by Can Themba) and projects with South African theatre-makers Athol Fugard, Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon. The text, though, nods most fondly to two classical texts connected with Brook: Oedipus, which he directed at the National in 1968, and Hamlet, the Shakespeare play to which he has most often returned.

The Prisoner has an Oedipal protagonist, Mavuso, who has killed his father after finding him in an embrace with Nadia, Mavuso’s sister. This variation on Seneca/Sophocles seems to stray towards Elsinore when the father’s ghost appears to Mavuso, whose dilemma – is revenge killing ever justified? – is exactly that of the Prince of Denmark. Having responded in the affirmative, Mavuso is punished by an “ancient” rite that involves sitting opposite a prison and watching it until he achieves spiritual freedom.

That image – fabulist, obscurely beautiful – is late Brook at his best. As for the rest, my own preference is for him as a Shakespeare director: his Beckett-influenced King Lear with Paul Scofield (filmed in a version available for streaming) remains the best of the 20 or so attempts at that play I have seen.

Brook’s work with Estienne aims for a theatrical Esperanto, creating pictures, gestures and sounds that will resonate anywhere. But the cost of this is an ideological generality. And weirdly, despite the long rehearsal times that were a justification for Brook’s French retreat, the actors sometimes seemed to be ad-libbing, loosening and lengthening lines in the published text.

In late style, Said identified a refusal to admit defeat. In The Valley of Astonishment, a Brook-Estienne piece about synaesthesia at the Young Vic in 2014, a key moment was described, rather than shown, because it was not actable. In The Prisoner, one scene features a real fire but an imagined rat. It seems unwise to direct us to what the art form can’t do. It’s a pleasure to applaud Brook on his late lap of honour. But I harbour a fantasy in which he stayed in Britain and worked on Shakespeare at the National and RSC. 

The Prisoner
Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
National Theatre, London SE1

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war