The last of David Edgar's three plays about post-Cold War Europe, The Prisoner's Dilemma, presented by the RSC at The Other Place, is very much a play of ideas. It contains three brief scenes of action (as a mainstream cinemagoer might understand the term) amongst eight of debate. For the real action is in the words: in the way in which individual terms and entire tongues face up to, sidle around and engage with one another. Indeed, I don't think I've ever before seen an audience so engaged on a semantic level that they spontaneously applaud a particular choice of word as a dramatic breakthrough.
The piece begins with an animated discussion about peace between an oppressed secessionist people and the state which governs their land. It soon becomes apparent that this is in fact role-play as part of a seminar on international mediation, but in subsequent years each of its participants becomes involved in one way or another in the real-life negotiations of just such a situation: a fictional land whose geography is somewhere in the Caucasus and whose political situation is akin to that of Kosovo or the ethnic Albanian area of Macedonia. Clearly, though, Edgar has chosen factors which are pretty much universal; at the end of Act One, when the painstakingly brokered peace agreement, hammered out word by word, collapses mere minutes before its signing, accusations and counter-accusations fly about the real and potential harm of the events on the ground, about state sponsorship of "independent" groups, about the historical legacy of old events, which are all too familiar to me as a Northern Irishman.
The title refers to the classic poser about two prisoners, held separately, each under pressure to rat on the other: the optimum outcome is for each prisoner to remain silent, each realising that in saving the other he also saves himself, but each needing to trust the other to see the same conclusion. Repeated references are made to this, to games of chicken and to the "two doors, two guardians, one question" riddle. The patterning can get a bit wearing, but I suspect that this is as much a function of the reality of such negotiations and face-offs as of Edgar's illustration of them, as he shows both how reality can devise a problem for every solution and how the interests of third-party peacemakers can come to override those of the direct antagonists. (In a discreet but delicious touch, a U.S. State Department official has a mobile phone whose ring tone is "The Star-Spangled banner".)
Michael Attenborough's production fully recognises that the tautness of the play is all in the words. The moral and practical cruces of the play are almost all, curiously, faced by women; in particular, Penny Downie and Zoë Waites shine as a Finnish negotiator and a peace-seeking paramilitary commander respectively. If my countrymen reconvene at Weston Park this summer, Stratford is not so far away. They should be encouraged to make the trip. But perhaps they should leave at the interval, just in case.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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