In the text of his new play, The Prisoner's Dilemma, David Edgar acknowledges a number of books that he found useful on the subjects of peace negotiation, treaty-making and game theory. Unfortunately, there are many times in the course of this long, involved evening when the piece itself feels more like an academic manual of conflict resolution techniques than a fully fleshed-out human drama.
Spanning the 1990s, it focuses on the arduous diplomatic attempts to resolve the unrest in the former Soviet Republic of Kavhkazia where the people of the largely Muslim province of Drozhdevnya are fighting for self-determination. It starts, though, at a university seminar in Santa Cruz in 1989 where an international group of delegates (who pop up in different contexts throughout the drama) are discussing various models and analogies for peace negotiation. One of these, which provides the play's title, asks you to imagine two criminals who are arrested, kept in separate cells, and each told that the other is going to rat on him.
Various deals are offered to them, the definitive twist being that the best outcome (that they both walk free) involves them both remaining silent. So the issue becomes one of trust: can you gamble that the other guy will be sufficiently nice or clever to work that out? Though this situation has limitations as an emblem of the peace process, it works well as a metaphor for the virtues of collaborative empathy, where thinking what is best for another person also turns out to be the wisest course in terms of self-interest.
The play makes a strong case for necessity of imaginative identification: the irony, though, is that this is not its own strongest suit. As the drama takes us from Finland (where the two sides struggle over crucial niceties of wording in the Draft Declaration of Shared Principles) to Kavhkazia and beyond, the characters feel as though constructed from the outside by someone who finds their intractable problems intellectually fascinating but who fails to feel their suffering on his pulses.
At the negotiators' house in Finland, there's a 12-year-old boy, Jan, gratingly smartarse, tactless and detached, who develops a taste for the insulting foreigner-jokes cracked by the adults. You reckon he might well grow up to compose a play like The Prisoner's Dilemma which, though written by a 53-year-old, has an air of swotty, self-satisfied precocity.
Edgar has always been very adept at dramatising the grinding nitty gritty of the political process, the wheeling and dealing in committee rooms that produces change. Here, the most satisfying scene is the final discussion in Finland which leads to the breakthrough change of wording, with the Drozhdanis agreeing to "relinquish" rather than self-betrayingly "renounce" viol-ence. And, in a later, re-angled perception of the prisoner's dilemma, where the intermed-iary is seen to have so much power that the medium effectively becomes the message, Edgar has valuable things to say about the dangers of America and the West imposing quick-fix solutions – sometimes from 1500 feet in the air.
But with the exception of Penny Downie, who brings a troubled complex intelligence to the role of the Finnish arbitrator, and Robert Bowman, who finds a moving emotional depth in Roman, the Khavkhar editor, the actors in Michael Attenborough's lucid efficient production are unable to dissuade you from the view that The Prisoner's Dilemma is a clever-clever bloodless drama penned by a boffin.
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