A life in the vanguard

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© Michael Coveney – 15th December 2010.  ©Photo : Pascal Victor
Peter Brook will celebrate his 86th birthday in March with a Barbican production. The most original of theatrical titans tells Michael Coveney why the time for banging the drum is over

Peter Brook, now aged 85 and still working, is the most admired and influential theatre director of our time. He was a 22-year-old wunderkind when he came down from Oxford and became director of productions at the Royal Opera House, persuading Salvador Dalí to design Richard Strauss’s Salomé for him. Landmark productions at the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company followed in the 1960s: Paul Scofield in a grainy, granite, emphatically Beckettian King Lear in 1962 that fired an entire generation’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare; Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade in 1964, with a cast including Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson and Patrick Magee, which set new standards of ensemble work and revolutionary fervour in the British theatre; his famous white-box gymnasium production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970).

There were films, too, including his 1963 anthropological adaptation of Lord of the Flies. In 1974, he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, having created two experimental epics, first performed in Iran and Africa: Orghast (1971), with a « new language » text by Ted Hughes, and The Conference of the Birds (1972). The centre is based in a dilapidated but singularly atmospheric old music hall, the Bouffes du Nord. From there, Brook has continued to this day to work on productions that travel the world.

In mid-2000, I went to Paris to see the solo show, Warum Warum, which Brook directed for one of his regular collaborators, the German/actor Miriam Goldschmidt. We met afterwards for dinner in the Bouffes du Nord café. He was soon to start rehearsals for a stripped-down production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute – following similar reductive treatments of Carmen and Pelléas and Mélisande – which comes to the Barbican in London in March. In november, I returned to Paris to see The Magic Flute ahead of its London run.

In many ways, Une flûte Enchantée, as the Paris production was callde (it’s sung in German and spoken in French, and will be presented at the Barbican with subtitles), is a final staging post on Brook’s lifelong journey of refinement and simplification – a summation of his career and, perhaps, a starting point for a debate about its significance. The two-and-a-half hours of Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Shikaneder are reduced to 95 minutes. The pantomine and fairytale elements of the story are excised. The newly arranged score is performed on a single piano. Nine barefooted actor/singers play on a stark, but beautifully lit, stage. Two of them, african comédiens, manipulate a collection of cane poles that represent emotional thickets and physical obstacles in the forest of dreams and adventure.

The effect of this staging, against the rococo balconies and exposed brickwork of the Bouffes, is both cleansing and overwhelming. But anyone who has seen Brook’s work since his landmark production of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, which toured the world in the late 1980s, will recognise the simple apparatus, civilised tone and aesthetic beauty that are Brook’s directional signature. As Brook explained it to me, the « visibly reduced form » of the opera is intended to give « the young singer-actors the chance to release the tiniest light and shade of Mozart’s language vibrations. » It’s an approach that echoes perhaps the central paradox of Brook’s entire career – that his success at creating his own work, on his own terms, in his own way, has always been based on collaboration and almost a deliberate artistic self-immolation. « What I discovered in the theatre, » he told me, « was the joy of working in a team. » From this followed his decision to make so few films, despite the success of those he did make and the fact that the originally thought he wanted to be a movie director. « With a film, good or bad, there’s no way of knowing whether the experience of the team was good or bad. In film, you have a relationship with the actors and the unit on the set, then you have a relationship with the editor, and your last is with the first projectionist. In theatre, you are all together, offstage and on, from first to last, and all the time. It’s a much better way of living. »

Since leaving the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, the year of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and his greatest fame, Brook has treated the world as his oyster: mixing actors of various nationalities and cultural backgrounds in pursuit of a distilled form of theatre that is as appropriate to a village clearing as it is in any European arts centre. On his last directorial visit to London, in February 2010, Brook brought 11 and 12 to the Barbican: a transfixingly sedate meditation on a dispute over how many times an Islamic prayer should be recited. It was slyly acted on an orange carpet, with a single musician at the side, and expressed quiet horror at the thought of warfare and massacre stemming-as it did, in a small town in Mali before the second world war-from one little prayer bead.

It is because of his interest in mysticism that Brook is sometimes accused of flattening out his theatre into a repetitive, minimalist investigation of the human condition. In a 2002 piece for the Guardian, David Hare went so far as to berate Brook by contrasting his approach to the exemplary case of John Osborne, « who did not go into exile and set about draining plays of any specific meaning or context to the point where each became the same play. » Is there I asked Brook, a danger that his minimalism has led to spiritual vagueness? « There are two traditions one must constantly try to bring together, » he answered, « which only Shakespeare has managed consistently… the earthly and the spiritual. The polemical theatre is never going beyond what everyone knows already. Theatre is not food for debate. Debate is food for debate. Theatre should be always able to touch something in one that is unexpected, opening a new door and sensing a further dimension. The weakness of political theatre is that people making it think they know better than the audience and will always put them onto the right track. »

Brook’s career has been a constant search for truth in art and in theatrical behaviour. But it is difficult not to miss the excitement and urgency of his 1960s work, with all its messiness and aggression-something largely missing from his Parisian years at the Bouffes, though there have been bleached and revelatory revivals of Timon of Athens, The Cherry Orchard and the surreal Ubu plays of Alfred Jarry. Brook knew I had seen 11 and 12 at the Barbican, and asked me what I had thought of it. I admired its restraint and delicacy, I replied, but felt a little as though I was in church and shouldn’t ruffle my hymn sheet. He didn’t dismiss the criticism. « Our version », he told me, « was ideally meant for an audience of 300 seats, we were making an artificial intimacy… On that big stage, and in London, with all its excitements and fury and debate and so on, silence is perceived as somehow exotic, and therefore a form of aggression. »

Brook’s is a restless genius, but there are certain Shakespeare plays he has always returned to, notably The Tempest and Measure for Measure. The latter play he first directed at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1950, with John Gielgud as Angelo, in a wildly inventive production full of gags and a freak show of prisoners. By the time he returned to it as the opening show at the Bouffes in 1974, his reading was classical and intense, aiming for a perfect consistency between the life-and-death drama and the low comedy in the stews of Venice.

Like his later Measure for Measure, Brook’s Une Flûte Enchantée obliterates the distinction in the work between narrative extravagance and inner discovery-between the antipoles, if you like, of Papageno’s wildness and Sarastro’s pomp and ceremony in the palace. Rather brilliantly, but perhaps disappointingly for opera buffs, the show-stopping coloratura arias of the Queen of the Night become dramatic arguments, not virtuoso vanity items. Despite his age, Brook is slowing down only slighty: withdrawing from the day-to-day running  of the Bouffes; concentrating on rehearsals and on travelling, inquisitively as ever, with his productions around the world. He is the subject of a fine, appreciative biography by his friend  and sometime colleague, Michael Kustow, but his chief legacy in print will be his still essential manifesto, The Empty Space (1968), in which he discussed four categories of theatre: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. Today, he says, he would add two more categories: the outrageous theatre (which goes beyond any sense of outrage at social injustice); and the theatre of human resources-« in which you see that whatever image you put on the human being, there is more that can be revealed, as in King Lear. » Both definitions imply a world beyond imagining-a glimpse of the impossible-that has always infused his work and defined its deep seriousness.

Perhaps my biggest question to Brook was to do with his lifelong place in the vanguard, as someone who knew and admired such figures as Bertold Brecht, Tyrone Guthrie, Edward Gordon Craig and Jerzy Grotowski-visionaries and innovators all. What happens next? He startled me by mentioning the current west end hit War Horse, produced by the National Theatre and based on Michael Morpurgo’s tale of a west country farm horse in the first world war. « One can see a big hit like War Horse and it is, beyond question, in its own way, wonderful, » he said. « And yet one can still, at the end of it, say, « So what? » It’s a difficult time for the theatre today because the period of the avant-garde, and the experimental theatre, is over… As in painting, the methods we adopted have passed intot the mainstream. All the television publicity, and the advertising posters, are based on the revolutionary experiments of Picasso and Matisse; any 30-second television commercial is drawing on the revolution in film of Jean-Luc Godard. »

We lingered over coffee and tea as the restaurant closed down for the night. It vas me who had to end the conversation. The waiters were putting chairs on the tables. I hurried towards the Gare du Nord, while Brook stood immovably on the pavement, waiting for a taxi to take him home to his apartment. Fifty yards down the road, I turned. He was still standing there, stock still. And I recalled his last words on the future of the theatre: « There is no more need for any genuine area of formal experiment. » For this most original of theatricals titans, the time for banging the drum, or disrupting the spectacle, is over. Radicalism has come to signify something much more interior: integrity but also intensity. « What is needed-and this is why it is so much harder and tougher, » he told me, « is a return to the elemental question of meaning, and the quality of that meaning. » It’s a question of penetration, and of understanding. « After all », he added, « you only really get to know a foreign city when you travel on its underground system. » The taxi, I could now see, was pulling up.
Michael Coveney

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