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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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