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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Prisoner's Dilemma
by Lizzie Loveridge

You have a fear. That you discover real problem with your search for common ground. That when people see it they don't want it.  
--- Roman Litvinyenko

 The Prisoner's Dilemma
Zoë Waites as Kelima Bejta
(Photo: John Haynes)
David Edgar's new play The Prisoner's Dilemma completes a loose trilogy of political plays about the nature of Europe that emerged at the end of the Cold War. The first two were The Shape of the Table produced at the National Theatre and the award-winning Pentecost. The Prisoner's Dilemma takes as its theme negotiation between two sides sharing a country and enemies, united only by their fear and loathing of each other and their history of brutality. They are often divided by religion and ethnic origin. The strongly controlling communist regimes of Eastern Europe stifled dissent and covered over the cracks of a divided nation. With the demise of these regimes in places like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, nationalist factions emerged, the repressed hatred leading to a bloodbath. Edgar looks at the processes in attempting to find agreements that both sides can live by, ways of forgetting their history, "to sacrifice their past in the interests of a better future".

Edgar's play is a very wordy three hours, but prepared for this, I found it very intellectually satisfying and challenging. The title refers to that much repeated logic problem, the lateral thinking exercise whereby one needs to know the correct fork in the road and is faced with one man that always lies and the other who always tells the truth, but without any way of knowing which one is the liar. The solution is to ask "Which way would your brother say is the road to . . .?" and to take the opposite advice. The problems in the play are as complex but there is not an easy solution.

The drama opens with people gathered round a table in negotiation.
Floss: You say 'cessation'. I hear 'surrender'.
Al: You say'people's army'. I hear 'terrorist conspiracy'.

A member of the audience joins in and it becomes clear that this is an intellectual exercise, a role play seminar in a university setting in Southern California and the audience member the professor (Larry Lamb).

The second scene, eight years later sees a naked man, his head covered with a bag, being interrogated by some paramilitaries. He claims to be a tourist. Edgar uses a foreign language to be spoken by the guards. Two months further on, sees two of the seminar participants, now engaged in a real negotiation. Penny Downie plays Gina, a Finnish diplomat trying to broker a deal between Roman Litvinyenko (Robery Bowman), editor and Professor Nikolai Shubkin (Trevor Cooper), professor and military historian, Christians, representing the government of the former Soviet Republic of Kavkhazia, and Kelima Bejta (Zoë Waites) of the Muslim Drozhdan People's Front and Hasim Majdani (Robert Jezek), a Drozdhan medical director. The negotiations proceed on a knife edge to a hard fought agreement which is aborted three months later. A major scene switches to aid workers in Kavkhazstan, two more from the seminar group, Floss (Diana Kent) and James (David Wilmot) overseen by a NATO peacekeeping soldier, trying to get food and medical supplies past a Kavkhazian checkpoint to the Drozdhanis. A potentially volatile situation erupts into impossible choices and bloodshed. The final political of high level negotiations involves the Americans and the issue of where the oil pipeline will run, culminating in a final scene in which the aid worker Floss uses what she has learnt to protect a group of women from an area controlled by foreign soldiers who are meant to be acting in their interest.

There are fine performances. Zoë Waites is particularly impressive as the hard line freedom fighter, intractable at first but bonding with two of the group. I liked Trevor Cooper's wheeler dealer, ruthless and brutal "Professor or is it General Shubkin?" and Diana Kent's well intentioned, but out of her depth, aid worker and Robert Bowman's complex negotiator. I found Penny Downie less convincing as the main intermediary. There were times when she seemed too much the housewife and too little the career diplomat that she would have to have been to have reached the level of international foreign affairs. Some of this happens because the playwright has set these negotiations in Gina Olsson's own home, the participants as her house guests and with her husband and son in attendance.
Edgar has studied documentaries about negotiations and the peace process as material for his play so much is based on true life drama. There is a theory that a furious row is needed to clear the air, one side stalking out after which an agreement can be reached. It is hard to get all the layers of games playing on the first viewing so I would recommend maybe reading the play. Beforehand reading would spoil some of the dramatic moments but probably clarify the games.

The sets are realistic, meeting rooms, a modern Helsinki house, a makeshift aid depot. The Pit is the smallest Barbican space, an easy one, well liked by actors and audience. David Attenborough, the newly appointed Artistic Director of the Almeida , directs impeccably so that I never looked at my watch in the three hours. There are lighter moments too, when in front of their opposition, the visiting guests provocatively present their hostess with an ashtray made from a piece of captured enemy cannon. The jokes the combatants tell are sadly based on the reputations for stupidity or laziness of their close neighbours. If there is a choice between justice and peace which do you choose? Justice might mean perpetuating the conflict, peace may well mean the guilty go unpunished. The final agreement reached for the Drozdhanis is not so much a peace, as a division of territory. "And we end up with the second worse for everyone . . . I wanted to make history. But we find there is too much history already."
The Prisoner's Dilemma
Written David Edgar
Directed by Michael Attenborough

With: Larry Lamb, Penny Downie, Zoë Waites, Douglas Rad, Diana Kent, Joseph Mydell, David Wilmot, Trevor Cooper, Ben Alsford, Jack Blumenau, Alan David, Robery Jezek, Robert Bowman, Alex Zorbas, Hattie Morahan.
Design: Es Devlin
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Sound Design by John A Leonard for Aura
A Royal Shakespeare Company Production
Running time: Three minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 606 3400
Booking to 6th April 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st February 2002 performance at The Pit, The Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2
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