Peter Brook: The sage of the stage

The Englishman, who passed away on July 2, was one of the greatest theatre directors of the 20th century

By Jayanth Kodkani

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Published: Fri 8 Jul 2022, 11:59 PM

During the customary curtain call at the end of a play, actors led by the director take a bow and thank the audience. Amid applause.

But theatre legend Peter Brook — who celebrated American film critic Pauline Kael called “the grand old enfant terrible of the English theatre” — had other ideas. The final moments were crucial in letting the experience haunt the memories of the audience. So, in a radical change of convention, the closing moments of Marat/Sade (1964) saw a virtual riot. As the audience rose to applaud the actors, still in their costumes (of inmates at an asylum), they were in turn scorned and jeered at. Many wondered whether the play had ended at all. Soon, the stage manager landed there blowing a whistle and trying to end the turmoil. A couple of actors removed their wigs, some others stood staring at nothing. Unsure at first, the audience began to clap. The actors stepped forward and clapped too, but this was a mocking, rhythmic applause. Sections of the audience rushed out, some lingered to see the actors still on stage. It wasn’t a performance they would forget easily. Critics called this “shock theatre” but it was meant to let them feel and belong.

Now, this could happen in a closed auditorium, a Greek-style theatron — an open-air and semi-circular gallery — or in a warehouse. Perhaps even on the lawns of a heritage building. For Peter Brook, all this space could have made theatre — where anything could happen but something must happen.

His creative devices sometimes stunned theatre-goers but all through the seven decades of his career, Brook chose unorthodox ways of stagecraft. He believed theatre should be developed as a special place. “It is like a magnifying glass, and also like a reducing lens… while we live less and less in the villages or neighbourhoods, and more and more in open-ended global communities, the theatre community stays the same: the cast of a play is still the size that it always has been. The theatre narrows life down,” he wrote in The Empty Space, an analysis of the performing art.

Brook’s search for such meaning had begun early. Biographical sketches picture him as a seven-year-old boy who staged a four-hour performance of Hamlet at a toy theatre; of a young director who had worked with Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Vivien Leigh or a versatile professional who dealt with works of William Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. His literary range diversified further as he moved across continents as head of the International Center of Theater Research, acquainting himself with many other cultures and philosophical ideas. Through this journey of finding stories he strengthened his belief that drama is an intense connection between the actors and the audience. Contemporaries and close associates often pictured him as a restless soul who forever sought strategies to depict human dilemmas and challenges on stage. “Why?” was his constant password.

In asking questions, he had developed methods and concepts that stood apart from his early influences: Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski’s “method”, which suggested an actor’s authentic performance could drive home the message; Bertolt Brecht’s epic or dialectical theatre that chose to reject plot/story and focus on the message by adopting “alienation” techniques such as moving sets, half-raised curtains, placards showing what will happen or actors playing multiple characters; Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty that aimed at unsettling the audience; Samuel Beckett, whose Theatre of the Absurd threw light on the irrational aspects of the human condition.

Over the years, he believed the actor-audience engagement would make a huge difference in ending the monotony that was setting in. To him, the life of a play began and ended “in the moment of performance”. If memories of the performance stayed with those who watched, it could be kept alive. An actor had to use physical movement to depict the state of the character. Without expression or body movement, there was no transmission of emotion.

Theatre, then, was not about imitating reality. It was about achieving reality, at least trying to do so. He cites an anecdote in his memoir, Threads of Time, to explain how he began to look closely at scenes in movies. Once while watching a trailer with his Mom, he was struck by an image of a man thrusting his gun at a girl’s head, “visible on a pillow in the dark”. “Where is the key to the garage?” the man asked the girl and Brook trembled too. Many years later when Brecht tried to prevent the viewer from identifying with happenings on the screen, Brook says he wasn’t convinced. Identification was “far more subtle and subversive” than Brecht seemed to imply. While we realize our surroundings — be it in a movie hall, at a play or at home in front of a television set – the mind still attaches us to the action. “A gun, a clenched fist, and the illusion is complete.” The connection is made.

And so, there was no room for pigeon holes. No classification. No ideological ground as well. His productions were modern and went past the traditional by using mime, folk elements, myth and language. His scenography consisted of astonishing images and spaces; sometimes the nuts and bolts or mechanics of the stage. His adaptations varied according to place and time — versions of The Tempest were separated in treatment, time and place. His intrinsic art lay in paring down a story to its essentials and simplifying production by allowing interaction with the audience. When a story was reduced to bare bones, its essence showed. Like Pablo Picasso’s series of lithographs that depicted a bull in different stages of abstraction. From a sturdy animal that could be distinguished by features to the slow shedding of characteristics and finally, to a few physical lines merely suggesting it is a bull. It is this transition — effectively from a proper noun to the common noun — that deepens and broadens understanding. Many scholars and critics saw this progression in Brook’s interpretations — be it King Lear, The Cherry Orchard or the Mahabharata.

Some of Brook’s important plays show his flight path in the world of theatre: the early adaptations of Shakespeare to radical departures in stagecraft to more complex and non-conformist themes. But no matter when the play was written and what period it portrayed, he believed the sense of “it’s all happening now” must prevail. Shakespeare, in his vision, isn’t about yesterday.

Take his adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a path-breaking production where he and designer Sally Jacobs created a huge white box set for all the action making it seem contemporary and dynamic. The box had two doors and no ceiling. The fairies swung on trapeze bars and juggled plates. The costumes came from different periods and places. A big red feather made for Titania’s bower. And for the curtain call, when the lights came on and Puck recited the lines, “Give me your hands, if we be friends”, the entire cast rushed to the spectators and shook hands.

So it was with Marat/Sade or its unabridged title, 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, set in 1808 in France. Written by Peter Weiss, it employed a play-within-a-play device, apart from songs that comment on society and politics – much of it reverberating with universal references.

Perhaps the most ambitious of his projects was the production of The Mahabharata (1985 / film version in 1989) an ancient Indian epic that involved a nine-hour retelling. It had a multi-racial cast of 21 actors from 16 countries and was staged at a quarry in Avignon, France. For Brook, the monumental text was fundamentally about moral dilemmas, about power and righteousness. There was room for various other interpretations but at its core, it was about duty and responsibility against the tragedy of conflict. Reading the epic afresh, Brook mixed the grand scale of mythology with the real as much as the metaphysical.

Also on the map of Brook’s deep-thinking voyage were the ruins of Persepolis, once capital of the Persian Empire. Orghast, staged atop the Mountain of Mercy, was devised only for that place. The show wasn’t meant to go anywhere else. Written in collaboration with poet Ted Hughes, Orghast is about Prometheus, the Greek God of fire. It employed a newly-created language, punctuated mainly by cries and sighs. Not theatre Esperanto, but a means to use “non-identifiable words in a certain way”, Brook said. All of which raised the question: can theatre be done with sound instead of language?

Past geographies, Brook delved into the mindscape too. The Man Who: A Theatrical Research was based on neurological case studies by Oliver Sachs in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales and dealt with intricate realities of the mind. Studying the working of the brain was like visiting a “valley of astonishment”. For the audience, there was no better way of understanding patients and pathologies.

Even at 93, Brook wouldn’t rest. In The Prisoner, he got more reflective, inquiring into concepts like justice, redemption and freedom. Is freedom about not being captive or bound? He drew the story from his travels in Afghanistan, a strange episode of a man sentenced to sit outside the prison and face it. With Marie-Hélène Estienne, who collaborated with him on many scripts, Brook wove a dramatic play that hauntingly reminds us of our moral duties.

He had an eye for images and it extended to cinema but many works are filmed versions of his plays. One movie original that stands out for its art is Lord of the Flies (1963), based on William Golding’s classic about a group of schoolboys shipwrecked on an island. It is a rather blunt comment on our definitions of civilization and savagery, shot in black and white. The extensive use of a hand-held camera gives the film a documentary feel. As if responding to his early fascination for the medium, he chose to use sound and light in imaginative ways. For instance, he avoided showing the slaughter of pigs in a sequence, resorting only to sound-effects. That was enough to make an impact.

He could literally go miles to explore ideas. On a long, three-month journey through sub-Saharan Africa with a band of actors, Brook discovered the value of a carpet as theatrical space. As puzzled villagers looked on, the carpet attained metaphorical meaning. It served as a mobile podium; it worked as a prop and importantly, it demarcated space.

On open ground or on stage, Brook let his actors be. And let his audience feel. In that basic role, he brought us a sense of wonder and reflection. It was his way of seeing — global, cross-cultural and, polyphonic — that made the difference.

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