The one who got away
© The Independent – UK – Georgina Brown.
The one who got away: Peter Brook – innovator, visionary, outsider – has been based in Paris since 1968. Will we ever win him back?
Theatre’s grandest inquisitor looks as if he has been modelled from pale pink plasticine. At 68, Peter Brook is a little grizzled, his hair patchy white stubble, his eyebrows antennae-like, and there is not the faintest whiff of the theatrical about him; he doesn’t dress in the black- out that is directors’ standard issue and it’s doubtful he knows what luvvie means. He awaits interrogation as immobile as a Buddha, but for the fluttering, childsize hands which lightly grope the air, moulding great arias of explanation into phrases which precisely express his thoughts. Yet there is nothing cosy or solemn about him; it is as if small electrical charges – energy, laughter, inspiration – pulsate from those bleached blue eyes. Is he a shaman or a showman? Undoubtedly both.
While it is impossible to persuade oneself that Brook has ever had to concern himself with a task as prosaic as, say, applying for household insurance, from beneath that donnish, aesthetic exterior emerges a deeply practical man. Trucking with a troupe of mummers through West Africa, staging a Sixties season exploring Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, establishing in Paris a multi-racial polyglot group of actor-disciples to create an international theatre language which would transcend Western conventions – to name but three theatrical adventures in a life that continues to pile them high and wide – are the deeds of a visionary, but one who insists that he is, above all else, ‘an artisan’.
‘People take themselves for artists,’ Brook says. ‘They will use the word ‘creator’ – and I’m horrified by that because it’s infinitely too pretentious. In the theatre you are working for something indefinable to appear, which is of a certain intensity, a certain quality, through human actions, not through artistic means. The theatre work itself is highly practical. For the most marvellous thing to appear, the person must be speaking loud enough, the tempo must be right. The work is only good if you bring it down to its artisan basis.’ He speaks without piety, without arrogance. Indeed, he speaks as if pronouncing on a matter of simple common sense.
Yet his methods of summoning ‘the marvellous’ are far from simple. He begins with ‘the formless hunch – the basis of everything – that something is pregnant, something is possible, and all the work is to find the complete, convincing but temporary form that suits the moment’. His latest book, There Are No Secrets, admits the outsider for the first time into his processes, through the case study of his Tempest. The ‘formless hunch’ was an image of a Zen garden. Realising it engaged his actors and his designer, Chloe Obelensky, for almost six months during which mountains of raw material – earth of different colours, ropes, ladders, carpets and bamboo sticks – were exploded. In precis, the process was one of trial, error, search, elaboration, rejection and chance; weeks of vocal exercises and improvisation passed before a word of Shakespeare was uttered; eventually the work-in-progress was tried out on schoolchildren, the most honest of critics. Such an approach provokes accusations of self-indulgence, pretentiousness even. But the results speak for themselves: indelible images of extreme intensity and clarity; extravagant visual spectacle without gimmickry; a rare emotional intuition between actors.
Brook’s embrace of actors as collaborators brings queues of hopefuls to his Paris space, the Bouffes du Nord. Few meet his standards, which are extremely high, not just professionally but morally. ‘I used to say I looked for art and heart in equal proportions. Now I say I’m looking for ‘a good actor’, somebody who is good as an actor but is also good in the sense of being an open and moral human being – something that is endlessly to be discovered.’
Always, it seems, his dominant characteristic is an insatiable questioning. And yet, intriguingly, his personal perfectionism does not prevent him from enjoying productions that have been pulled together in six weeks. ‘There is only one thing that matters, which is the life that appears inside the performance. Everything is a paradox – you need endless time to do something well and yet endless time is useless unless you can also do something in a second. In the theatre, broadly speaking, people who come together hardly knowing one another and each fighting for success are less likely to enter deeply into a subject than a team. The fact remains that when we went to Russia we saw productions that had been rehearsed for three years, and you’d think that it was the second day, except that if it had been the second day it would have been more alive. It was the dullness of nothing discovered.’
His restless search for new forms of theatrical expression makes it impossible to predict what Brook will do next and how he might do it, though these days you can safely say that he is more likely to switch the house-lights on than design 300 lighting cues. Following his phenomenal The Mahabarata, which took nine years’ preparation, nine months’ rehearsal and nine hours to perform, he had a ‘tremendous personal need not to go into a rehearsal with something from the past, from the East, in costume. I always have the same ambivalence that something in costume and in the cultural tradition is both a help and a hindrance. It’s a help because something is opened up in the imagination and, my God, it’s a hindrance because of all the associations the classics bring.’
He found a necessary antidote in the ‘neurological project’, L’Homme Qui, a four-hander inspired by Oliver Sacks’ case histories of psychological patients. ‘Through neurology there is something in the mind and the brain that confirms us all and yet the imagery for the moment is virgin. With L’Homme Qui one has to be direct, alive and contemporary without using the present day as a clutter of cultural references any more than the past.’ And for the first time in many years, London audiences will have a chance to see Brook’s piece at the National Theatre.
Brook has always said he will go wherever the proper conditions are offered; he is weary of denouncing the ‘myth’ of his ‘exile’ in Paris since 1968. ‘Paris was a very natural climate for something that is international, that breaks out of certain canons of what is respectable art in the theatre. Maybe it could have taken root in England in the same way – certainly today it couldn’t’ Brook always imagined he would regularly return here to work. As to why he hasn’t he is realistic rather than resentful. Nowadays he has two rooms in London where he once had a large house.
Brook recalls his early work only if forced – not out of embarrassment, but because he considers it an irrelevance. It maddens him when critics discuss his work sequentially. ‘Any piece of theatre is, more than anything else, of its moment and in its moment. Recently someone for whom I have great respect asked me to do again the same production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It would be quite impossible and basically not interesting. What came together at that time came together completely. It had a starting point, went through various difficulties and found a shape that corresponded to what was needed at the time. I wouldn’t know where to start to do it differently or where to start to do it the same way.’
While his own projects forge ever forwards, he admits – and more surprisingly, welcomes – that The Theatre is in crisis. ‘Every time this happens people ask the foolish question, is the theatre, like God, dead? Obviously what it means is that the question of what is theatre becomes real. If theatre has meaning – and I think it has – it is one of the basic tools available to human beings for increasing their understanding of life. I don’t know what happens when people are totally deprived of theatre, but one can say what happens when it is naturally observed as a necessary part of existence. One knows that culture is certainly not having a refining effect – look at Yugoslavia – yet one clings to the position that life becomes civilised when one is cultured. A crisis enables one to question what one takes for granted as the cultured life.’
All of which places an enormous responsibility at the feet of the culture-creators. ‘One has to be vigilant, though not solemnly responsible – but in the way that, if you run a restaurant, there are two attitudes. If a dish slips on to the floor, you either throw it away or you serve it up. In your choice of theme, in the way you allow your personal frustrations and negative feelings to come into the work that you do, you can determine whether you are doing something that can make your audience come out worse or better. And better is either complacent and closing one’s eyes or more courageous.’
‘There Are No Secrets’, Methuen pounds 12.99