Peter Brook’s influence on theatre is legendary, writes Peter Craven
The legendary theatre director talks about his career and his latest, and possibly last, production
PETER Brook was born in 1925 and was directing in London’s West End, at Stratford and at Covent Garden in his early 20s. He staged Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in 1956 with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; in 1970 he was responsible a bare-stage version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that resonated around the world. He wrote a book, The Empty Space, that was a seminal text for several generations of theatre-makers.
Now he has directed what is possibly his last production: Brook’s new stripped-back production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute — here given the slightly less emphatic title A Magic Flute — premiered in Paris at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in late 2010, toured widely last year, and comes to the Perth International Arts Festival from today.
Brook has lived for many years in Paris, where he directed the Bouffes du Nord for nearly 40 years; now in his ninth decade (he is 87 next month) he is not coming to Australia this time, so we speak on the phone.
He was in the dark, he says, about theatre in those early years, though he makes this sound like a stage on the way to enlightenment. ‘‘ My interest was not to start with any preconceived ideas about anything. So at the time I didn’t know whether it was better to work in a proscenium theatre or, as some people were beginning to say, to work with an open stage. I didn’t know whether it was better to work in the commercial theatre and try to do the best work in commercial conditions or whether one had, on the contrary, to work only with dedicated but poorly paid enthusiasts; I didn’t know any of those things.
‘‘ I didn’t know whether theatre is better on a large scale or a small scale. And I didn’t know really whether fine work had to be for an elite; whether the theatre, if it is good, has to be elitist. Or if it would be rough and clumsy if it was popular. I didn’t know any of these things. And luckily, I never wanted to listen to any fixed dogmas, anything preached to me by moralists or by theatre theoreticians. I didn’t read any books about theatre, I didn’t go to any theatre school. I tried to discover in the way that Australia was discovered . . . exploring, just that.’’
His explorations turned into some of theatre’s most influential work. During his mainstream period Brook directed Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost projected through the painting of Watteau, and did his dark comedy Measure for Measure (the one about executing people for having sex) to look like a Breughel painting. He directed the latter at Stratford with John Gielgud, at the height of his powers, as Angelo, the hypocritical judge who lusts after the young novice, Isabella, for her purity. You can sense in Gielgud’s recording of the play the well of darkness Brook found in the actor. Gielgud said Brook was always patient with his mannerisms; in The Empty Space Brook talks about Gielgud’s innate aristocracy.
Years later, in 1968, Gielgud appeared in Brook’s version of Seneca’s Oedipus which had a gigantic phallus on stage. Ralph Richardson quipped in a joint interview with Gielgud in the 70s, ‘‘ What was that terrible thing Brook did? You were in it, John.’’
Brook was the wunderkind of the British theatre in the immediate post-world War II period, associated not only with Olivier and Gielgud but with the greatest actor of the next generation, Paul Scofield. He directed the widest range of mainstream theatre: Irma La Douce (with Australian Keith Michell), Scofield in Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon, contemporary work such as John Arden’s Sergent Musgrave’s Dance and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. In Paris he staged Genet’s The Balcony and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
When Kenneth Tynan was reviewing British theatre (from the mid-40s to the early 60s), Brook was the supreme virtuoso — at once contemporary cutting edge and a towering classicist. These qualities came together in his King Lear with Scofield in 1962. It was the greatest Lear anyone had seen — at least since Donald Wolfit, perhaps ever. Brook got it out of Scofield by seeing Lear through the lens of Samuel Beckett.
We can tell from Brook’s 1971 film — shot by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, in black and white and set in a wild and bleak environment — that his Lear was a work of interpretative genius. A great director and a great actor were in absolute rapport. Brook also filmed Lord of the Flies in 1963. It has the terrifying, overheard quality of a documentary and it was this experience (with boy actors) that led Brook to suggest nature has its own hierarchy of people who can and can’t act.
The following year Brook directed Peter Weiss’s French Revolution play known as Marat/sade (the full title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade). The Royal Shakespeare Company production starred Patrick Magee as De Sade and the very young Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday, and took London and New York stages by storm.
Then in the late 1960s the French Olivier, Jean-louis Barrault (Baptiste in the film Les Enfants du Paradis), invited Brook to create a workshop for people of diverse backgrounds. Their International Centre for Theatre Research brought, he says, ‘‘ actors from different cultures, different backgrounds, different religions, different languages together to see if they could work together, and whether one could make a tiny world that at least had a harmony that the bigger world is incapable of finding. That was the first period. The second period was when, out of that, I began to discover what, from all these different things, could be eliminated. To undergo a whole process of just discarding what no longer seemed useful or valuable to the event.’’
Out of this came the RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream set on a bare stage, in glaring white light, with the fairies on swings as if the fantasia of shifting identities and desires belonged in the gym-like space of the imagination. The production (which came to Australia) was Shakespeare stripped of everything but the tumbling, dance-like power of its dramatic energy and poetic
sweep. It was thrilling because it was so classical and so radical at the same time. Writing in The New York Times in 1971, Clive Barnes said: ‘‘ This is without any equivocation whatsoever the greatest production of Shakespeare I have ever seen in my life — and for my joys and my sins I have seen literally hundreds. Its greatness lies partly in its insight into man, and best of all its remarkable insight into Shakespeare. But it also lies in its originality. It is the most genuinely and deeply original production of Shakespeare in decades.’’
Brook tried in Paris to create a kind of ensemble theatre — political in its multiculturalism, meditative in its emphasis on the inner experience behind dramatic art. This led to Brook’s famous ‘‘ hippie’’ productions such as The Ik, Ubu and The Conference of
Birds that toured Australia in 1980. ‘‘ And that’s what led us eventually to marvellous experiences in Australia, which I fell in love with and found an absolutely magnificent people and place, and which led us to the Adelaide Festival, to Melbourne, Sydney and to the Perth festival,’’ he says. (An Adelaide quarry was the venue for the marathon Mahabarata, a magical experience remembered to this day by so many.)
Yet for Brook — who can talk about going beyond verbal theatre, of the text as a fetish — it’s the Bard who shows the way. ‘‘ The model has always been Shakespeare who was the only author — ever — to combine all the levels of experience into one short space of time, two hours as he called it.’’ And
SHAKESPEARE IS LIKE A LIGHTHOUSE, A BEACON THROUGH THE DARKNESS
wouldn’t that have been implicit in the Shakespeare he did long ago with Gielgud and company? ‘‘ Oh, certainly,’’ Brook says.
‘‘ And that’s why I say that Shakespeare has been the model. I don’t think any one of us today anywhere can become second Shakespeares but he is like a lighthouse, that is a beacon which shows through the darkness, a light which shows what is possible. The way I’ve always put it is that you want the visible and the invisible to appear. That has always been my preoccupation.’’
It’s difficult to get Brook — who directed Jackson in 1978 as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, and did a cut TV King Lear with Orson Welles in the 50s — to talking about his starry moments. ‘‘ There were such an enormous amount of marvellous experiences,’’ he says,
‘‘ that I can’t go into them. I’m more interested in the present so I look back as little as possible.’’
He has enjoyed fame for more than 60 years — he directed Salome (with Salvador Dali sets) at Covent Garden when he was 22 — but exclaims ‘‘ God, no!’’ at the suggestion he could hunger for the lost world of theatre and opera’s golden age. ‘‘ Like everything, there were the dark and light sides. The comfortable middle and upper classes of that day could afford to allow themselves to search for culture and make culture into a god . . . without realising the suffering of 90 per cent of the world that their comfort was based on. And I never believed — and still don’t believe — that culture and art . . . well, they are more than something of value but certainly not demigods.’’
Brook’s Magic Flute is a radical abridgement of Mozart’s fairytale. Brook believes the defining quality of Mozart’s great operas — he is speaking of Flute, Don Giovanni and
The Marriage of Figaro — is that they ‘‘ cannot be classified. None is simply amusing or simply serious: they are not light and they are not solemn.’’ His program note talks about getting rid of
Magic Flute’s heavy (in fact, Masonic) symbolism and finding the ‘‘ ever young Mozart’’ through the use of a young cast. His production minimises clutter in order to focus on the human drama. The cast of seven singers and two actors have been chosen for the ability to bring the drama alive, and it should be noted that Australian tenor Adrian Strooper, who will alternate in the role of Tamino, ‘‘ brought a light sweet lyric voice to the role’’ according to Anthony Tommasini in his New York Times review.
Brook has cut the original to 90 minutes with no interval, and Mozart’s score in reduced form is played on the piano by composer Franck Krawczyk. Bits of Mozart piano pieces are absorbed into the opera score and one of his free-standing songs is given to Papagena. There is no set: Brook uses bamboo poles to conjure a cage, a temple, the lot. The descriptions and photographs suggest the minimalist wizardry of his
Dream. The cast members are barefoot, and a black coat substitutes for a fancy costume.
‘‘ With The Magic Flute it was clear that centuries of decorations and complications had been added by designers, by directors, by conductors, but there was a very pure and beautiful work that could touch people in a new way if we could get rid of all that no longer seemed to be necessary,’’ says Brook. Is there a risk with this? ‘‘ In the case of
The Magic Flute it’s very carefully called A Magic Flute to say that we’re not criticising or condemning the many, many highly talented people who are doing the full opera, with a conductor and a full orchestra and a full score.
‘‘ We are proposing a version which doesn’t rule out listening to it or going to see it in its full version but A Magic Flute gives one the possibility of touching and experiencing a deep aspect of the work which one doesn’t normally feel and which we’ve found now — wherever it’s gone — audiences taste and appreciate because this much shortened version brings you to the essential.’’
A Magic Flute, Perth International Arts Festival, until February 25.
Peter Brook, above left, in Paris last year. Above, a scene from A Magic Flute