Brook still finding his moments on stage


Laura Collins © Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.
Beckett, Dostoyevsky projects reflect his embrace of the life in classic texts

« Beckett worked until a phrase’s ‘shape, its imagery, word pattern, and, in the end, its music all corresponded to his deep wish to make something absolutely perfect.' » Peter Brook, who is directing Samuel Beckett’s « Fragments » in Boston.

It’s a lonely argument, and Peter Brook has been propagating it for decades, making little headway. We’ve gotten Samuel Beckett all wrong, the director insists.

“I knew Beckett, and I found him a man of enormous humanity and humor and a really good companion and friend. Nothing was more enjoyable than to be with him,’’ the revolutionary British theater artist said recently, on the eve of his first Boston engagement since his famed Royal Shakespeare Company production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ played the Shubert Theatre 40 years ago. “And of course, when I said this at the time, people couldn’t believe it.’’

Brook, who turns 86 tomorrow, deploys a pair of productions to ArtsEmerson this week: a Dostoyevsky adaptation called “The Grand Inquisitor’’ and a program of Beckett shorts called “Fragments.’’ Hence his warm and upbeat reminiscence about the Irish playwright, so at odds with the public’s notion of him.

“They thought he was a sort of austere and rather forbidding, monk-like figure who looked at everything with a dark eye and saw nothing but human misery,’’ Brook said from Milan, where he was directing the “Magic Flute’’ that he will take to New York this summer. “And to find this man who loved women and good drink and good food and lived in Paris for choice, and was always every morning in a cafe, where he would be sitting enjoying himself with various friends, this man was not that.’’

Likewise the work, said Brook. He has been convinced for 50 years, ever since he saw the New York premiere of “Happy Days,’’ that there is “a shining thread running through’’ Beckett’s plays, even a capacity for joy. That it’s been largely overlooked, he said, is the fault of the existentialist movement.

“It was part of the human climate of the time,’’ explained the director, speaking from experience. In 1964, Brook directed the RSC’s Theatre of Cruelty season. “This was a time when in Europe there was a feeling that optimism was a bourgeois luxury that was too easy, and that the truth was something tougher and harder, and that the world’s bourgeoisie were refusing to look this in its face.’’

Though Beckett belonged to that movement, Brook said, he was very different from an existentialist such as the painter Francis Bacon, who “put all his talent into showing nothing but horror, the horror of the human condition.’’ In the playwright, Brook sees a great craftsman’s love of beauty for its own sake, as well as a deep belief in human potential.

“This is why he sometimes would spend a year just working on one phrase,’’ he said. “While Beckett would never sink so low as to say, ‘I’m going to write a happy, beautiful play,’ he couldn’t refrain from working and working on the phrase until its shape, its imagery, word pattern, and, in the end, its music all corresponded to his deep wish to make something absolutely perfect.’’

In his own work, Brook said, he is searching for that same perfection Beckett sought, but by another method: trial and error as part of the rehearsal process.

Brook, who made his RSC debut in 1946, was already an eminence in drama (and the author of an enduring meditation on theater, “The Empty Space’’) when he decamped from England in 1970, founding the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris. With his company of actors, he traveled the world, performing explorations in drama.

Some of the original members of that group are his collaborators still.

Bruce Myers, the star of “The Grand Inquisitor’’ and a member of the “Fragments’’ cast, had gone to Stratford-upon-Avon to see his friend Helen Mirren the first time he met Brook. A young actor, he was feeling disillusioned with the theater— the hard work, the little money. But the charming director piqued his curiosity and engaged his intellect, and they began collaborating.

“Working with Brook made sense of it in a way,’’ Myers said last weekend from Rome, where the company was performing, “because the work was so interesting and went so far in explaining things about human nature, about the way the world works and the way people are and the way people . . . could be, but can’t be without an enormous effort. Also, what theater could be.’’

Construction of some of their pieces, like the Indian epic “The Mahabharata,’’ which premiered in 1985, stretched over many years. But, Brook said, there’s an impulse he must feel before he finally brings any given work to the stage: “Now is the moment.’’

For “Fragments,’’ he said, that moment came because times have changed and existentialism is no longer au courant, allowing for the emergence of what he called “a most essential Beckett.’’ (This is not his first Beckett production. His own “Happy Days,’’ in French and starring his wife, Natasha Parry, was rapturously reviewed in the 1990s.)

“The Grand Inquisitor,’’ a 60-minute monologue, has been percolating in Brook even longer. Adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne, another longtime collaborator (and his co-director on “Fragments’’), it is taken from a chapter of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.’’

’’I’ve known it all my life,’’ said Brook, who was 21 when he directed a play based on the novel in London.

But it was only a few years ago when the time felt right to stage the confrontation between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ, which Brook views as a tragedy. In the novel, it is a story told by Ivan to Alyosha about the Spanish Inquisition: Jesus is in Seville, performing miracles, when he is arrested and imprisoned. The Grand Inquisitor, coming to his cell, informs him that he will be burned at the stake the next day.

“What is extraordinary in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is to see the most terrifying man one can think of, a man who is burning people every day in the name of God,’’ Brook said. “It’s topical for every Christian who says, ‘Look at those awful [Muslims]. Look at those monsters. They just think of murdering people. We as Christians, Christ taught us love.’ And then you say, ‘Yes, just a moment. What about the Inquisition?’

“The other reason [it’s topical] is that the Grand Inquisitor, having taken Christ as his prisoner, has to justify himself to Christ, so he has to say to him, ‘Jesus,’ as a terrorist would today say to Mohammed, ‘we’re doing this for you. We’re doing this in your name. We’re doing this to save your work.’ ’’

Dostoyevsky’s story is a classic text, but “classic’’ is a word that makes Brook wary. Freshness is what he’s after.

“My wife, for instance, will never buy anything without looking at the date on the package, which says ‘to be eaten before this date,’ ’’ Brook said. “If a classic is something from the past, to be honored because it’s from the past, it’s like eating a canned fish or something beyond the stop date. And the only way that a classic should be staged is because you’ve discovered, or you believe, that it is still alive.’’


FRAGMENTS : Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, Wednesday through April 3. Tickets: $25-$79. 617-824-8000 or

THE GRAND INQUISITOR : Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Black Box, Thursday through April 3. Tickets: $59. 617-824-8000 or

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