Peter Brook: all the world’s his stage

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January 23, 2005 – © Times

At 80, Peter Brook is bringing his genius back to London. And, though he doesn’t want to be seen as a messiah, says Dominic Dromgoole, this is one director who’s still working miracles
How do you rescue a saint from sanctity? There is something about the theatre director Peter Brook that suggests whispering in Vatican corridors and the papal nod. Except that, if he is to be canonised, it would be outside any organised religion. Like Nelson Mandela, like Muhammad Ali, like Arthur Miller, he is a saint of a new type. There is no pope to legislate for these communicants of a new connected global consciousness.

It’s a cliché, but there is something saintly about Brook, who is 80 this year. He has a power of sight, both within to the spirit and without to the world, given to few and maintained through a lifetime by even fewer. Like all saints, he is also surrounded by some rather creepy acolytes, who help create a highly unfortunate aura of sanctity. When his Hamlet opened in London in 2001, there was a programme note of such uber-unctuousness that it encapsulated most of the problem. It said, with manufactured awe: “Peter Brook is theatre.”

Every nerve in your body shrieks “No!” when you read something like that. There is a terrifyingly airless exclusivity to it. Peter Brook alone is not theatre. Roy “Chubby” Brown is theatre. Berwick Kaler’s York panto is theatre. An ageing touring production of Ayckbourn is theatre. They are all theatre equally. Yet there is a pious, snobbish strain among the acolytes that wants to raise Brook up to an Olympian height that all other drama must aspire to. It’s a hierarchy that doesn’t make sense. The school Nativity play can reach greater poetry than any star vehicle in the West End. An amateur group of farmers having a laugh playing the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can hit the same dignified warmth that the actors strove for in Brook’s celebrated production 35 years ago. It’s unlikely they could do it night after night in a production that travels and stuns the world, as Brook’s actors did. Nor is it likely that their amateur director could ever achieve the effortless intermingling of romance, magic, poetry and rough humour that Brook wove together. But on any given night, it is impossible to say where true dramatic virtue will appear. It’s too democratic a spirit.

It doesn’t suit Brook, either. When I spoke to him recently, we were talking about the genius of Shakespeare and his special capacity for disappearing, for making his own personality evaporate in the process of creating. I asked Brook if it was hard to remain self-effacing when the whole world was so keen to memorialise you. “It’s important not to take oneself too seriously,” he said. “When I am treated as an expert or a specialist or a guru — I hate that. It is useless and destructive for anyone to follow someone else’s path. We mustn’t encourage the cult of the personality.” Yet in this age of kitschily perfect plastic messiahs, it is hard to shake off the desire of many to scrub their heroes clean of all human mess. And in a theatre culture that has largely given itself over to the values and aesthetics of the boutique, Brook is uncomfortably held up as the ultimate gilded artefact.

The audience are as responsible as the acolytes. If you go to the Bouffes du Nord, Brook’s own theatre in Paris, you find the lively bounce of excitement that the French delight in to help create an event. If you bring the same show to London, it is surrounded by a cultish, hushed reverence. Words and actions are observed as if they had a divine authority. This is not an environment in which theatre can happen. When Shakespeare pitched Hamlet out at 2,000 spectators, he had a restless mob to manage. So, beside the delicate introspection of the hero, he stuffed in jokes, sword fights, shouting and a rampant story. If he hadn’t, he would have been shouted off. His crowd was hungry for dramatic meat. And he enjoyed that element of the contract. If he saw the subdued, squashed spirits I was surrounded by, watching Brook’s meditative distillation of Hamlet, he would have been horrified. Theatre can’t take place without some rough and tumble, without some resistance. There is no magic of silent attention to achieve if the audience have been practising their silent attention in yoga classes for the past two months.

Brook seems aware of this, and uneasy. Speaking of his new show, Ta main dans la mienne (Your Hand in Mine), which he is bringing to the Barbican, he said: “I don’t want people to see it as something representative of my work. Nothing I do is representative. Nor is it a demonstration of the experimental impulse. It simply is what it is.” The play is a sparse and simple account of the love maintained between Chekhov and Olga Knipper through their correspondence. “There was a special quality of feeling that Chekhov was trying to evoke through those letters. We are trying to match it.” He is at pains to demystify his work: “Ever since I began in Paris, I have stopped being interested in directing as an art in itself. I now feel a director is simply a person taking responsibility to help a group produce a quality of experience in the moment. That can mean being showy with fires and water, as in Mahabharata, or it can mean being spare and minimal, as we are with the Chekhov piece.”

After almost 60 years of unbroken achievement, he can be allowed a little modesty. He is, first and foremost, what it says on his passport: a theatre director. And a great one. He has an exquisite sense of beauty. This has shifted from the Watteau-esque decoration of his Love’s Labour’s Lost in the 1940s, through the lurid pop-art colours of his Dream, to the russety reds and browns of his more recent, autumnal work, such as Hamlet and Le Costume, both seen at the Young Vic. He has moved with the shifting colours in the world and in himself, but has always had a steady eye for unearthing truth’s partner, beauty. He is also a genius at casting. He spends years picking his actors, and it shows. From right across the world, he finds and chooses the actors closest to the essence of each part. His internationalism is not an ideology — it is the people he works with. He began this process with his expeditions to Africa in the 1970s, and it reached its culmination with Mahabharata, an Indian epic performed by an international cast all around the world. In this, as much as anything, he points the way to the future. In rehearsals, somehow, he digs deep and mines the heart of each scene, but not for a display of demonstrative emotion. Having discovered the deepest truths, he confects with his actors a light dance around the essence of each moment.

If he has a signature, it is in his unique ability to evoke a sense of the numinous just beyond the world we see. The mysterious third, who walks always beside us, seems to whisper his way into the theatre during a Brook show. He is more and more conscious of this presence, as he has been working recently on African plays with a powerful spiritual presence. “Theatre must bring out what is ignored or for-gotten in the present day. It must respect that behind the lies, the monstrosities and the persecutions that go with religion, there is something beyond all that, something that binds us all together and something that, in the theatre, can be tasted in direct experience. Theatre is not a religion, not a temple, a philosophical forum. We use mechanisms of legitimate entertainment — story and rhythm and humour and fun — to create openings.” Openness is the crucial virtue for Brook — not in the glasnost sense, nor in the lazy pluralism we all give a nod to. He means in the Shakespearian sense, the openness Lear tumbles terrifyingly towards and Hamlet discovers: openness to the reality of the world and of all others.

I ask him about the latest incident of closedness in our world: the riots that closed Behzti in Birmingham. He asserts the impertinence of talking on a subject he has little knowledge of, but goes on to say: “All our lives are balance, boundaries and limits. Socially and politically, we have to stretch barriers and sometimes crash through them, but sometimes you have to respect them. There is an absurdity level to religion one cannot respect. There are conventional taboos one cannot respect. But there is a fine line where there is a precious place in people that we must respect. We can’t go and kick someone in the arse just for the fun of it.”

He develops his theme to reveal a gentle impatience with some of the shock theatre of recent years. “Theatre is always on the move, and its job is to go against whatever is obvious. In a moment of absolute chaos such as now, with no faith, no belief and no conviction, there is a role to reveal something else. When we’ve had 150 years of smashing through barriers, then the theatre of protest and outrage has become conventional. Denouncing capitalism was great in the 1960s, but it’s boring now. Theatre mustn’t be a Don Quixote, charging at windmills that are no longer dangerous.”

This is where he parts company with some of us, partly over the present dangers of religion and capitalism, and partly over the role of theatre. The English theatre has an art tradition, a holy tradition and a kick-ass punk tradition. From Vice in the Mysteries, through Falstaff, to Jimmy Porter and on, there have always been yobbos happy to cause as much needless offence as possible. It is part of what makes us ghastly and glorious. The exemplar of that tradition was our other great loss to France, Joan Littlewood. She and Brook went on almost perfectly contrary journeys. Littlewood, the working-class girl, went from street theatre out of a van to the sophisticated wildness of Stratford East, and retired to the fine wines of the Rothschild vineyards. Brook, the Chiswick émigré, began in the fineness and decadence of the opera world and Binkie Beaumont’s West End and finished in a rough district of Paris doing pure theatrical research. Both were glorious; neither was right.

To understand the full glory of our theatre, we have to celebrate both.

I worked with two good actors once, one who had acted extensively with Littlewood, the other with Brook. After a long and wild night on tour, I saw them sitting on a bench. The Brook actor had got up at dawn, after a good night’s sleep. The Littlewood actor had been drinking, rowing and flirting all night. They sat there, one with a cup of green tea, the other with the fag end of a bottle of whisky. They talked, as one wiped sleep away and the other fell towards it. The Brook actor started doing t’ai chi, carving out clean lines in the pink sky. The Littlewood actor rose and imitated him. The trained actor hit his groove quickly; amazingly, the one with no training also found his zone, his calm place. They were elegant together in their field. As Brook knows, though his acolytes often forget, there is more than one way to grace.

Your Hand in Mine, Barbican, EC2, from Wednesday until February 12; Peter Brook is in conversation with John Tusa after Wednesday’s performance

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