Peter Brook’s in­flu­ence on theatre is leg­endary, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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



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



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