Do Not Look Down in This Class


“The actor’s gift,” according to the director and theatrical sage Peter Brook, “is the connection between pure imagination and the body itself.” For him, the technique of acting is at once physical and metaphysical, a discipline of the face, limbs, voice and spirit. « Peter Brook: The Tightrope », a concise new documentary directed by Simon Brook, offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes as its subject (who happens to be the filmmaker’s father) instructs a group of actors in the rigor and simplicity of his method.

Wearing a bright orange shirt and holding forth in an accent that bespeaks breeding and education, Mr. Brook, edging toward 90, seems at first to be a gentle, grandfatherly teacher. He invites his pupils — of various shapes, sizes and backgrounds, speaking at least four languages — to undertake what looks like a fairly elementary, mechanical exercise. They are to walk across a large Persian carpet as if along a tightrope, maintaining balance and trying out whatever tricks or stunts strike their fancy. The most important requirement is that they convey a sense of reality, as if they were genuinely suspended in the air, their feet hugging a thin cord. After a while, it becomes clear that the tightrope is also a metaphor, standing for the existential risk inherent in every serious instance of playing.

As Mr. Brook’s criticisms — never unfriendly, always candid — make clear, what the tightrope walkers are really doing is, well, everything: conveying emotion, telling a story, inhabiting a situation that demands limitless, almost impossible focus. And, of course, that’s only the beginning. Accompanied by music (including snatches of The Magic Flute) and supplied with rudimentary props (bamboo reeds, a few chairs, a book of matches), they explore short scenes and improvisations, always encouraged to find the concentration and imaginative daring of the initial high-wire acts.

At the beginning of the film, Mr. Brook explains that he usually refuses the request of those who want to watch his rehearsals: What could be more bothersome than a fly on the wall? Simon Brook used five hidden cameras, and the audience has a sense of witnessing intimate moments rather than watching a performance.

Peter Brook’s productions of Shakespeare in the ’50s and ’60s are legendary. His subsequent work — “Marat/Sade” and The Mahabharata, in particular — occupies a central place in the history of modern theater and represents a standing challenge to the psychological realism and social didacticism that have dominated the art form in Britain and America. His interest has always been in the ritual roots and mythical resonances of the theater, and the idea of acting he articulates in “The Tightrope” has a primal, even mystical tenor. He speaks of access to a collective brain, of grasping the essence of time and of the ways the theater can offer a heightened experience of life.

At times, the faces of the actors under his command register confusion and frustration. Mr. Brook’s words can flow almost effortlessly from plain practicality — stand here; walk that way; start again — to dizzying abstraction. His presence is both calm and intense, and, like all the best teachers, he offers lessons that can hardly be absorbed, much less applied, all at once. You envy his disciples, even as you may also feel a twinge of sympathy when their sincere best efforts fall short.

At some point, though, perhaps many years after the encounter recorded here, they will peek down at the chasm under their feet and find themselves possessed of the agility and imagination to keep going.

Peter Brook

The Tightrope

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Simon Brook; edited by Josie Miljevic and Barbara Bossuet; art direction by Yann Dury and Antoine Champerne; produced by Mr. Brook, Ermanno Olmi, Luigi Musini and Jean-Pierre Eklou Attisso; released by Brook Productions, Cinemaundici and ARTE France in association with the International Center for Theatre Research. At the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Lincoln Center, 144 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. This film is not rated

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