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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Prisoner's Dilemma
The Pit Winter 2001-02

David Edgar's new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company takes on one of the most perplexing and tragic patterns of the past decade, how so many peoples formerly under Soviet domination woke up one morning and, with the common enemy in Moscow gone, suddenly remembered that they hated their neighbours and began killing them.

It is a drama of ideas which, like many of the genre, sacrifices the drama to the ideas. If you are willing to be less involved with the human story than with the thoughts and after-theatre conversations it engenders, Edgar's play can make for a satisfying evening.

It begins in a classroom in 1989, as participants role-play their way through a negotiation game, with each side making non-negotiable demands on the other, and realize how very complicated the emotional and psychological challenges of diplomacy are (the play's title comes from another classroom game, that pops up again later).

We then flash forward several years and find one of the class participants now trying to moderate secret negotiations between the warring ethnic majority and minority of a former Soviet-bloc country. We see that the classroom complications were minor compared to real life, as the earnest but mutually suspicious negotiators painfully wrestle their way toward an agreement, only to have events back home make all their work pointless.

Several years of atrocity-filled civil war later, with other members of that classroom reappearing as diplomats, aid workers or combatants, a second, US- and NATO-imposed parlay must once again wrestle its way toward a peace that will fully satisfy no one.

Edgar offers few answers, beyond the suggestion that when there is no best solution possible, you may have to settle for the best solution that is possible, and he doesn't really anchor the play in enough of a human story to create interest or empathy for many of the characters. But he does effectively demonstrate how very difficult the problem is, and illuminate many of its political, psychological and emotional complexities.

Director Michael Attenborough keeps everything clear and moving, but doesn't triumph over the script's lack of a human core, and thus few of the actors are able to make us care about characters that are plot devices and spokespersons for the author's ideas. Coming closest are Penny Downie as the negotiation moderator and Robert Bowman and Zoe Waites as the most passionate of the partisans.

 
Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Prisoner's Dilemma - RSC Pit 2001