Chopping Up ‘The Cherry Orchard’

The Cherry Orchard

a play by Anton Chekhov, in a translation by Elisaveta Lavrova, directed by Peter Brook

The Shifting Point, 1946–1987

by Peter Brook
Harper and Row/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 254 pp., $22.50

With the support of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the British stage director Peter Brook has restored the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street in Brooklyn for two productions, the immense Indian epic The Mahabharata, which has completed its run, and now Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The old theater has not been remade, only stripped bare: there is no stage, no backdrop or curtain or proscenium, only a large space bordered in the back by a brick wall and on each side by four doors that open onto empty small rooms whose walls are covered with crumbling plaster and irregularly painted, as are other parts of the theater, in vivid Pompeian blues and reds. The appearance of the Majestic has been modeled on that of the old unused theater the Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has used since 1974 to present experimental theatrical events in Paris. Brook believes that the spare and ruinous appearance of the theater is less likely to allow the audience to be distracted from the action of the play.

Brook is one of the most imaginative theater directors to have emerged since World War II. He began directing plays while a student at Oxford University in the 1940s, and for his early productions he edited the texts, selected the music, and designed the costumes and sets. In a long career he has displayed a gift for creating disturbing and exciting images and situations on the stage. In his recent collection of pieces and essays on the theater, The Shifting Point, he speaks of the importance of what he calls “the central picture” of a play, from which the meaning of the whole work can be derived. The three people locked forever in a hotel room in No Exit is an image of this kind, he says; so are Mother Courage drawing her cart, Beckett’s people sitting under a tree or living in dustbins or buried in sand. Brook is able to create such images himself. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy world of Titania and Oberon is represented by acrobats on swings; the political and emotional meanings in the film of Lord of the Flies are revealed in close-ups of the pathetic fat boy Piggy. In his production of Genet’s The Screens a pair of colonists sit talking in front of a screen portraying a garden while a group of Arabs creeps up behind them and silently covers the screen with drawings of flames. Although this is called for by Genet’s text, the energy and rapidity with which Brook’s actors scribbled red and yellow chalk across the screen was exciting and distinctive.

Brook created his most celebrated images in his production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, which is set in a lunatic asylum whose mumbling, drooling, dirty inmates, including Sade, act out the main events of the French Revolution. Few who saw it could easily forget the upsetting sounds of balloons rubbed together and of scraped violin strings heard …

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