What must be the punishment for a young man who beats his father to death? In what may be a primitive location, where tribal justice is administered by family members and morality is dealt with in layers? That question is at the heart of the spell-binding drama playing at Yale Rep, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne.
A visitor, a woman, perhaps an anthropologist, or just an educated tourist, inquires after the story of a youth who killed his father. She is directed to an area in the hills where she will find a young man living in front of the prison.
The particulars: Mavuso (Hiram Abeysekera) finds his widowed Father sleeping with and enjoying his sister, Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Because he considers it wrong, and also because he is himself in love with his sister, he beats his Father to death.
Mavuso’s uncle, Ezekiel (Herve Goffings), the Patriarch of the family, finds the boy sleeping and performs a ritual of breaking bones in each of his legs, rendering him crippled. He also negotiates a different sentence for his nephew. Instead of going into the prison, he will sit on a hill in front of the prison for ten years. He takes him on a spiritual journey into the Forest, where the Father had taken Mavuso as a boy, and gives him the Father’s book. Now the tremendous tension between aching love for the Father as a boy and hating the Father as a youth for taking Nadia after the Mother died, will be permanent tension.
“The Prisoner” has been developed for several experimental venues across international boundaries. Yale Rep is one of them. (The others are C.I.C.T./ Theater des Bouffes du Nord in Paris; the National Theatre in London; The Grotowsky Institute, in Wroclaw; Ruhrfestspiel, in Recklinghausen; and the Theatre for a New Audience in New York).
The stage design (David Violi) is minimal, with only a tree-stump and pieces of branches and tree-limbs strewed around. They are moved into various formations during the telling of the story. Lighting design by Phillippe Vialatte is crucial as elements of the tale unfurl. Costumes (Ms. Etienne with Alice Francois) fit the moments of narrative.
But it is the exquisite choreography of simple movements on the empty stage (certainly reflecting the detail demanded by Mr. Brook) that hold audience attention to this compelling feast of a tale.
When Nadia visits Mavuso to do a healing ritual to his broken legs (and Mavuso tells her that he has always loved her, wanting her for his own); when she returns to tell him of the birth of a daughter and begs him to pretend he is her father; later when a villager (Omar Silva) visits him on the hillside and they become acquainted; when Ezekiel returns to comfort and share with him; even when guards approach him to tell him that the prisoners look at him looking at them. That Ezekiel and his family walk unshod adds to the quality of the image they create together. Walking in the forest, for example, they catch the energy that is available when bare feet embrace bare ground. Each movement is subtle, but ballet-like.
That is especially true when Mr. Abeysekera is sitting, gazing at the audience (looking at the prison) with eyes wide open, or tilting his head as if to listen to the forest sounds nearby. His gaze is penetrating. I told him later that I could have sat receiving his performance for hours longer, because his movements were so clear and focused that he reached into my soul.
The visitor does find Mavuso, but she does not ask the deep questions she wants to. Later, she returns, but it is too late. Mavuso is gone, and to her surprise, so is the prison. Only the haunting memory of a young man sitting on a hill looking at the prison remains.
The production is mystical, and you will think about it long after your visit. Somewhere at the root of it are questions asked by philosophers and moralists centuries ago. How can we be fully human and control the instincts of love and hate? To whom do bodies and spirits belong? How shall we be all that the Universe demands of us?
I recommend it to you with confidence.
Tickets and info at www.yalerep.org, or call 203-432-1234.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Nov. 11