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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 480-482
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The Prisoner's Dilemma
The Prisoner's Dilemma. By David Edgar. The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Other Place. Stratford-upon-Avon. 19 July 2001.
As an unknown critic once said, "Better a play that attempts too much than one that attempts too little." No critic has ever complained that David Edgar attempts "too little" in his plays. His most [End Page 480] recent work, The Prisoner's Dilemma—ambitious, sprawling, political—is certainly no exception to his body of work. Edgar, by his own admission, is not interested in small four-person domestic dramas; he is challenged by global issues and writes plays with large casts of characters.
The Prisoner's Dilemma is the final piece of Edgar's Eastern European trilogy, which began with The Shape of the Table and was developed in his powerful Pentecost. The famous dilemma of the title centers on a negotiation strategy involving two prisoners held in separate rooms. If each one stays with the same story, despite being told that his/her compatriot has confessed, then that position is the strongest for both prisoners. It is only when the doubts arise as to whether the counterpart has broken, that the prisoner is faced with the classic dilemma, a dilemma that may lead to freedom or condemnation.
Under the fine direction of Michael Attenborough, The Royal Shakespeare Company has given Edgar's piece an excellent production. Staged in the 170-seat The Other Place, the audience becomes, in the first scene, observers—members of an American negotiation seminar at an "unnamed" American university in Santa Cruz. In the class, we meet most of the major players of the drama: a Finn, Gina Olsson (Penny Downie); an African American, Patterson Davis (Joseph Mydell); a British citizen, Floss Weatherby (Diana Kent); an Anglo-American, Al Bek (Douglas Rao); a Kavkhazian, Nikolai Shubkin (Trevor Cooper); and the leader of the seminar, Tom Rothman (Larry Lamb). The second scene of the play takes place in a derelict house and brings together two other major players, the Kavkhazian prisoner Roman Litvinyenko (Robert Bowman) and the leader of the rebel Drozhdani, Kelima Bejta (intensely portrayed by Zoe Waites). The theoretical concerns of the class, over the course of several years, culminate in a climactic scene, calling upon an aid worker, Floss Weatherby, to make the choice of Solomon which ends in a horrific act of violence. Because Floss cannot make this choice, she watches in horror as two people are shot.
The play is thick with issues, and after the first classroom scene (one that deals with theories only), we are rushed into the highly charged world of actual warfare and of conflict negotiation where [End Page 481] words can save or cost people's lives. Banks of television and computer screens situated above the audience in Es Devlin's clever setting provide location, time, and place as well as topographical footage. This Brechtian device is used to broadcast maps of the country where warring factions battle. The computer gadgetry not only alludes to the contemporary use of modern technological weaponry, but it also echoes the instantaneous nature of television news.
Although this play premiered in Stratford in late July, 2001, Edgar's work takes on a new, specific resonance after the September 11, 2002 attacks on New York's World Trade Center. The play also speaks to the war in Afghanistan and to the ever-shifting situation in Palestine. Among many practitioners there is an assumption that playwrights should find the universal in the specific. Edgar has placed the conflict of the play in an unnamed Eastern European country, a place that bears a close resemblance to the former Yugoslavia, with one side being predominately Muslim and the other side not. Civil war is raging. Into this world, the negotiators descend, particularly the Finn, strongly played by the remarkable Penny Downie.
As in earlier Edgar plays (Pentecost in particular) and with few exceptions, most roles are doubled. Generally, this casting is effective, but it falls short in the doubling of Trevor Cooper as...