Note: This review dates from July 2001 and the production's original Stratford-upon-Avon run.
This serious and complex political play requires its audience to work hard, and rewards them accordingly. It's the sort of evening in the theatre you might want to follow up by watching Newsnight for a little light relief.
The Prisoner's Dilemma is David Edgar's third play about Europe after the end of the Cold War. It concerns the international efforts from 1997-2001 to bring peace to an ethnically divided state on the shores of the Black Sea - a state which has one river, one range of mountains and one coalfield, but two peoples, two languages, two religions and a history of hatred and division. It could be Chechnya or Kosovo, Palestine or Ireland.
It's also a play about language. English is not the mother tongue of most of the characters, but for all it is the lingua franca. They struggle to find words for a statement on which bitter enemies can agree. If violence cannot he 'renounced', is it acceptable to both sides if it is 'rejected' or 'forsaken' or 'relinquished'? Some characters make lists of the 'suspect analogies' used by others. All play elaborate word games.
The delegates at a peace conference make much use of riddles and traditional ethnic jokes in the rhetoric of their political argument. But though full of jokes, this play has no humour. It's deadly serious both at the negotiating table and on the battlefield. Edgar hints at the personal lives of his characters but never explores them. Occasionally, we get a subtle glimpse of the private face behind the public mask, but the focus remains severely political. If you're looking for an evening's light entertainment, then save your money. But if you love deeply serious political drama, this is unmissable.
All the acting is good; two performances are outstanding. Zoe Waites as Kelima Bejta, a dedicated young Drozhdani terrorist/freedom-fighter and delegate to the peace talks, gives the finest performance of her career to date. And Penny Downie as Gina Olsson, the Finnish facilitator who shows endless patience in her efforts to bring the warring factions to an uneasy peace, holds this intricate and difficult play together magnificently.
Through Michael Attenborough's lucid direction, The Prisoner's Dilemma reveals the inadequacies of both ideology and pragmatism. Complex and subtle, it's essentially pessimistic. Only at the very end of the evening does Edgar allow a tiny glimmer of hope but, sad to say, that's the single moment in the play which doesn't seem realistic.
The Prisoner's Dilemma opened at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18 July 2001 (previews from 11 July) and continues there in repertory until 13 October 2001.