Dialogue f oonr e
With a short but powerful play based on Dostoyevsky’s tale of Christ falling into the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, Peter Brook has found less can be more, writes Rosemary Sorensen
PETER Brook refuses to look back on more than 60 years in the theatre because, he says, he lives in the present and, besides, ‘‘ who cares?’’ Of course, many people do care, given the immense influence he has had on theatre performance. His refusal to self- memorialise is a sign that he has not come to a point in his life, at 83, when he is ready to reflect on the past because he has too much he wants to do.
Talking about his production of The Grand Inquisitor , which comes to the Brisbane Festival next month, he mentions that he’s hoping to return to Australia within a year or two for another project, ‘‘ something very different’’.
Something very different by Brook — the man who took theatre out of theatres and into the landscape, the man who transferred the idea of epic storytelling into epic all- night outdoor stagings that left audiences with an exultant I- was- there exhaustion — is an unbelievably tantalising promise.
In fact, with patient charm and politeness on the telephone from his office at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, his headquarters for 30 years, Brook does reflect on his life’s work. The Grand Inquisitor , an hour- long monologue delivered by an actor in the presence of a silent second actor on an almost bare stage, is the outcome of long experience.
‘‘ I started in the theatre with tremendous energy and liking extravagance,’’ he says. ‘‘ I tried everything, experimenting, and gradually, over the years, my own interest has been to drop all that, to get to the centre with less and less means. With The Grand Inquisitor , I would have once taken the entire The Brothers Karamazov and created a play that lasted a whole week. Today what interests me is the pure meaning between two people.
‘‘ Before we started, I thought, ‘ Maybe we will surround the action with bonfires and have videos showing the Inquisition’, but I gradually dropped all of it. That would not be nearly as good as the simple presence of the two actors.’’
Brook once did a production based on the entire The Brothers Karamazov , Dostoyevsky’s two- volume novel completed in 1880 shortly before the author died; Brook calls it ‘‘ the ultimate novel that contains everything of human life’’.
He has revisited the book and lifted one chapter, in which one of the brothers, Ivan, describes to his younger brother Alyosha a short story he has written about a grand inquisitor during the terrible 15th- century autos- da- fe in Spain. Ivan’s story ( or poem, as it’s described in David Magarshack’s Penguin Classics translation), imagines Christ’s return. The inquisitor immediately has him arrested and imprisoned, and it is the speech that he makes to the silent Christ, whom he accuses of returning to undermine the authority of the church, that forms the basis of Brook’s production.
The play was first done in French, with Maurice Benichou as the inquisitor. Long- time Brook collaborator Bruce Myers is the inquisitor in the English- language version, which has already toured to Spain, Russia and Chile and had a season at the Barbican in London. In Chile, Myers says, the audience immediately saw parallels between Dostoyevsky’s inquisitor and Augusto Pinochet: a reaction that shows how widespread and devastating the harnessing of religious fear and fervour has been throughout history. ‘‘ The audiences fall very silent,’’ Myers says. ‘‘ I can hear them listening very carefully as the inquisitor accuses Christ of being responsible for the rebellion and massacres.’’
Brisbane Festival director Lyndon Terracini saw Myers in the English- language version in Moscow last year, where it was part of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, and found it provocative. He says he knew he was programming a play strongly critical of the Catholic Church for the month Pope Benedict XVI is in Australia for World Youth Day.
‘‘ It occurred to me,’’ Terracini says, ‘‘ The Grand Inquisitor would be a very good balance to what was happening in Sydney, perhaps allowing us some perspective on it, too.’’ He had suggested to Brook that they program the performance in St John’s Cathedral, so that, at the end, Christ would ‘‘ walk out into the streets of Brisbane’’. The people at St John’s were keen ( and Terracini is talking to them about commissioning a play for his next festival), but Brook didn’t want it. ‘‘ He wanted it to have a greater resonance beyond the church,’’ Terracini says.
Brook says he had long wanted to do a production based on the extraordinary grand inquisitor speech, a jewel in the middle of a rich and complex novel.
‘‘ I feel it is close to the question of today and, suddenly, it has become more so,’’ Brook says.
‘‘ The cause of so much suffering and conflict and violence is this question of the relation between true inner religion, our spiritual experience, and authority, power, government.
‘‘ The church has, from the beginning of Christianity, tried to play a political role. It has seen its duty not only to preach the teachings of a great gospel but also to enforce this with violence. Then you look at the other religions, and you can see today, throughout the world, religions being imposed with violence.’’
While Myers inherited the role from the French production, he has been working for so long with Brook — since the director first set up the International Centre for Theatre Research with Jean- Louis Barrault in 1970 — that much of his work has been done, through the years, in French. He says it will be nice to be working in English for a change, but admits that the role is daunting. ‘‘ The character comes with the almost impossible task of entering- into- the- skin kind of acting,’’ Myers says.
‘‘ But it’s also the most exciting because it requires this extraordinary transformation. As a character, he’s a wonderful flight of fancy, hardly a straightforward human being at all, both executioner and mystic.’’
When he first played the role, Myers says, he was puzzled by the character, and indeed the first reviews were ambivalent. But as director and actor have worked through the text, they have discovered clarity in the characterisation.
‘‘ As someone in the audience in Italy said, ‘ The inquisitor is Christ’s greatest disciple.’ ’’
And yet he wants to condemn Christ to death. Brook and Myers have focused on this tragedy at the heart of the text as the intellectual and emotional core of the performance.
‘‘ I didn’t expect it to be like it was,’’ Terracini says. ‘‘ I had a preconception that it would be quite dour, because of the subject matter, but it is actually sometimes quite funny, with a sort of smart and wicked sense of humour.
‘‘ Bruce knows how to use the text and it’s one of those productions where everything is stripped back, so the actor can’t hide behind a fancy set or music. There’s just him talking to a
young man, and you do feel that intensity in the performance.’’
Terracini thinks the play has had such widespread resonance with audiences in so many different parts of the world because, while there is an increase in ‘‘ the desire for spirituality’’, many people are disappointed with the violence of organised religions and also the rise of ‘‘ shonky, demented, new age stuff’’.
‘‘ People are still interested in finding the truth,’’ Terracini says, ‘‘ and Dostoyevsky’s text stimulates so much discussion.’’
The grand inquisitor, Brook says, expresses himself more eloquently than any contemporary politician possibly could, which is why there’s such uncomfortable fascination among audiences as they find themselves convinced by the arguments demolishing Christ’s teachings.
‘‘ This is why Dostoyevsky’s text is so suitable for the theatre. Theatre starts when there are two people and there is a dialogue, but here there is a great conflict in that dialogue because Christ is present, but Christ does not speak. In front of these brilliant arguments, he doesn’t argue back, as everyone does today on every debate. He stays silent. But at the end, he expresses something that shatters every one of the inquisitor’s arguments, and that’s why it’s great theatre.’’
In previous performances Christ has been played by a non- professional actor, which Myers
Terracini knew he was programming a play strongly critical of the Catholic Church for the month the Pope is in Australia for World Youth Day
says works well; in Brisbane the role will be played by an actor, Jochaim Zuber.
In Italy, he adds, the company auditioned for the Christ role, which resulted in a large contingent of women turning up, ‘‘ very militant, saying why shouldn’t Christ be played by a woman’’. Brook and Myers rejected the argument. ‘‘ The play is difficult enough without that,’’ Myers says.
Brook is adamant that the speech, adapted for the theatre by Marie- Helene Estienne, loses nothing of Dostoyevsky’s original, even though the novel has a complicated story- within- a- story structure where Ivan is creating a parable for Alyosha. ‘‘ We did consider an adaptation where you see Ivan and his brother,’’ he says, ‘‘ but then you’d need to retell the entire novel: exactly how, when we did the Mahabharata, we found our way into that. I had started with the battle and had asked a great Sanskrit scholar: Why does Arjuna not want to fight? ‘ Ah,’ he said, ‘ to understand this, you must know who his cousin was, and his mother.’ Day after day he told me more of the vast story. And here it’s the same. If you introduce Ivan and Alyosha, then you say, ‘ Yes, but why are they like that?’ And then you must say, ‘ Ah, but I must tell you first about the father’, and you go on and on.’’
Brook counts Dostoyevsky among writers who belong to the peaks of great writing. That group includes Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Beckett. The forms change, he says, but the meanings are consistent. He defends Dostoyevsky against charges of being difficult to read, saying that in Russia he’s not even considered much of a writer because he originally wrote fast for serialisation. ‘‘ He’s a stylist with this tremendous energy in his writing that could never say all he wanted to say.
‘‘ He had the genius to understand that, using the soap opera form of the time, he could get a much wider readership than if he stayed on a high, noble, philosophical level. That’s why, I think, today anyone coming back to Dostoyevsky has a real shock.’’ The Grand Inquisitor is at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, as part of the Brisbane Festival, July 19- 26.
Theatre of meaning: Peter Brook, above; main picture, Bruce Myers in The Grand Inquisitor