Michael Billington asked leading theatre makers what questions they would put to Peter Brook. Then he put those questions to Peter Brook himself.
The following article appeared in the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday, June 8, 2005:
Peter Brook’s first production, at 18, was of Doctor Faustus. His latest, at 80, is of Tierno Bokar, the resonant story of a Sufi mystic. In the interim, Brook has directed just about everything: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, opera, musicals, boulevard comedy and, of course, film.
In 1971, he famously set up the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, which brought together actors from diverse cultures. The result has been globally influential. It has yielded many famous, much-travelled productions: The Mahabharata, The Conference of the Birds, La Tragedie de Carmen, Le Costume. But it has also – along with Brook’s book, The Empty Space – affected the shape of modern theatre. Brook’s emphasis on story-telling, distilled simplicity, cultural fermentation and a shared experience has influenced companies worldwide.
Brook is always surprising. I’ve known him, on and off, for 30 years and have always been impressed by his unruffled calm. When we met for this interview our difficulty in finding a suitable space in his London hotel was simply the latest in a series of exasperating problems Brook had encountered. So, with a steely anger I’d never seen before, he marched out of the hotel and we adjourned to a neighbouring coffee shop.
If our subsequent conversation – and I’ve had to edit his response to each question – constantly comes back to Tierno Bokar, it is not out of artistic vanity. It is simply because Brook lives in the moment; and this story, set in French colonialist Mali in the 1930s and 40s, and dealing with a doctrinal dispute between rival religious factions, was clearly uppermost in his mind. MB
Max Stafford-Clark (director): Given the state of political unrest in Africa, is there an appropriate theatrical response?
Peter Brook: It is quite clear that when one takes any political subject straight on the nose, one is in enormous danger of simplifying what everyone knows by heart from television and newspapers. Suppose we do a play about Iraq or genocide or Aids in Africa. It is very hard not to produce stereotype reactions. The only thing political theatre can do is open up contradictions by exposing the other side of an issue. And sometimes, by taking a subject from the past, we can awaken current concerns. We didn’t do Tierno Bokar as a metaphor for Iraq. But, wherever we have played it, people have said that the way French colonialism used religion to divide and conquer makes them think of modern America. The play also asks what is meant by religion. Are people who are prepared to die for their beliefs all misguided fanatics? Or is there something further that can make a very simple man like Tierno Bokar feel it is worth sacrificing his life for integrity, purity and tolerance? Every real political play contains not only vibrant criticism of a ghastly situation. It’s only complete if, at the same time, it evokes the possibility of something worth living for. Otherwise grumbling simply produces grumbling.
Simon Callow (actor): Does the notion of great acting as practised by Olivier, Gielgud, Scofield have any meaning today?
PB : I can never mention those three actors in the same breath. Olivier was the greatest fabricator of disguise of our time. Everything was there except the soul of Olivier, which nobody saw because he was always working to disguise it. With Gielgud, it was the precise opposite. In the same way the deep, mysterious, hidden Scofield shines through his acting in everything he does. At first I appreciated virtuosity for its own sake. But, as early as Dark of the Moon, which I directed in 1949, I began to feel that young, inexperienced actors had some quality that could flow through them. I now feel this transparency is the finest quality of all. Working on international theatre, I discovered that actors from other cultures had a capacity to find everything within themselves. The worst trap for the actor is simply saying: “It’s like me.” The whole point is that the natural emanation of themselves is brought into being only through the demands of the character.
Philip Hedley (director): In The Empty Space you famously wrote of Deadly, Holy, Rough and Immediate Theatre. Is there any different analysis you’d make now?
PB: The whole book was simply an attempt to make suggestions. Even when I created those four categories, I said they were only temporary frames of reference. I would hope the reader today would be interested in the book and then ask, “Is this relevant for me now?” So I’d throw the question back at Philip. I’d simply say that I’ve never been more clear than now that everything in theatre comes and goes in a transitory way. It’s passionately exciting for a moment and then it goes, leaving, as Prospero says, no trace.
Jude Kelly (director): Has knowledge of your own mortality shaped your choices as an artist?
PB: This is not recent. The sooner we recognise that we are all mortal, the better. I don’t think one has to put a skull on one’s desk as a memento mori as they did in the Middle Ages. But I’ve always felt there is no such thing as darkness: only the absence of light. There is no such thing as evil: only the absence of goodness. And one can accept death more easily if one doesn’t think of it as an equal opposite but simply as no life. Though I’m always drawn to a Cocteau ballet, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, which showed death as a beautiful woman. But how does all this affect theatre? It stops one wanting to moralise about good and evil. I also recall something that happened when we were rehearsing US (Brook’s 1966 RSC show about Vietnam). I said we can’t do this honestly unless we think of what the war means on the ground to the Vietnamese. So we all lay down and did an exercise where people called on their experience and imagination to try to understand dying and death. Obviously, it couldn’t match the hideous reality. It was simply an exercise to serve the play. But what happened was that the more everyone tried to comprehend death, the more every cell in them vibrated with life. For the first time I began to understand the process of catharsis and to realise that confrontation with the tragic worst produces an extraordinary sense of life.
Nicholas Wright (playwright): Do you have anxiety dreams?
PB: I was lunching once with Tennessee Williams and he looked at me very intensely and said: “I want to ask you something. Do you have great anxiety?” I said: “No.” He said: “Do you wake up in the night in a cold sweat?” I said: “No.” He went on: “Do you carry some nightmare with you all through the day?” Again: “No.” He went on asking me similar questions to all of which I said: “No.” He finally looked at me for a long time and said: “Then, man, you’re in a really bad way!” (Brook laughs loudly.)
David Eldridge (playwright): What role do you think living playwrights have in the modern theatre?
PB: The key is in the word “living”. A living playwright can be dead from the neck up. A dead playwright can be very much alive. It all depends on the approach. So a playwright who recognises that he must let something beyond his own point of view come through him has an enormous role to play. This goes back to an “argument” I recently had with David Hare (contained in an exchange of letters in Michael Kustow’s Brook biography where Hare basically accuses Brook of draining theatre of social context). I’m totally on Hare’s side in that I feel the English tradition of opening up local, immediate issues is of vital importance. But this mustn’t lead one to despise the continental tradition. At its worst, it produces art for art’s sake and I personally hate nothing more than art and culture. But, at its best, it penetrates the mystery of things through non-naturalistic means. As a single example, I’d cite Beckett, who in Waiting for Godot, through the art of words, silences and innate rhythm, creates something that is both recognisable and ordinary and yet universal. I’m with Hare and other British dramatists in their rejection of a comfortable, ivory-tower, middle-class theatre. But the challenge is how one goes beyond the purely local. People may accuse Tierno Bokar of not underlining the political issues. But I would say they are there without us having to bring in mobile phones, Saddam Hussein or an anagram of George Bush.
Neil Bartlett (playwright/director): Do you still think the most important thing in a theatre’s health is cheap tickets?
PB: Yes. This has been my most strongly held belief since we started in Paris. My greatest pride was that we could do an opera – which was Carmen – and charge as little as 30 francs. And, when we were in New York recently, we were very disturbed that seat prices at the Brooklyn Acad emy of Music had gone way beyond what they were in Mahabharata days. So we played at Columbia University and in the Harlem communities at half the original price. I should say that I have enormous admiration for Nick Hytner for what he has done in lowering ticket prices at the National and changing the audience. He’s not talked about it. He’s done it!
Tim Supple (director): Can you imagine as rich and productive a life lived making film as you’ve had in theatre?
PB: I don’t believe in “what if” questions. But the richness of working in theatre, as against the fascination of cinema, is sharing it with the same band of people. Making films is engrossing. But the poverty of the film experience is that you’re forming relations that last a very short time and then it’s over.
Kwame Kwei-Armah (playwright/ actor): What are the costs, if any, of leaving your native land to pursue an artistic vision?
PB: I don’t like grand terms such as “artistic vision” because I don’t believe I have one. For me, the absolute necessity was to work with actors of different cultures and backgrounds and play in front of different audiences. I wasn’t “leaving” England. I was simply recognising that in France the conditions were naturally there for international work. In France, however chauvinistic they are, they have a tradition of welcoming a criss-cross of foreign artists. Working with people of different backgrounds also doesn’t lessen my own sense of identity. I think with young actors and writers there is sometimes a fear of letting go; a feeling that, if you open yourself up too much, you lose what you are. Whereas the opposite is true. Multi-culturalism is not a weakness or a softening of the edges. It is something only at the beginning.
Brook, as you will realise, doesn’t do snap answers. But what is intriguing is that, at the age of 80, he is still searching and asking questions; specifically, at the moment, about religion, colonialism and Africa. He is not, because of that, hostile to British theatre’s embedded realism or its belief in verbatim, inquisitorial or political theatre. Nor is he automatically opposed to spectacle or fun: this is, after all, a man who directed House of Flowers on Broadway and Irma la Douce in the West End and whom I once met at Paris’s Opera Bastille where he was hugely enjoying a production of La Boheme. But Cocteau once claimed that “style” is for some people a complex way of saying simple things and for others a simple way of saying complex things. For Brook, theatre is very much the latter; and, in a late work like Tierno Bokar, he is seeking, in his own phrase, to “go beyond” the immediate present. Brook treats theatre less as a product than as a process: a collaborative means of exploring life’s mystery. Which is precisely what makes him unique. MB