Peter Brook’s Way

Qui Est Là

directed by Peter Brook. at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris

There are moments in Peter Brook’s current Paris production, an essay on Hamlet and directorial practice, which derive quite evidently from experiences half a century ago. Brook describes in The Empty Space the way the theater got going again, in 1946, in the ruins of Düsseldorf and Hamburg, in improvised, cramped spaces and among the most adverse conditions.

In the burnt-out shell of the Hamburg Opera only the stage itself remained—but an audience assembled on it whilst against the back wall on a wafer-thin set singers clambered up and down to perform The Barber of Seville, because nothing would stop them doing so. In a tiny attic fifty people crammed together while in the inches of remaining space a handful of the best actors resolutely continued to practise their art.

And again some pages later:

In a Hamburg garret I once saw a production of Crime and Punishment, and that evening became, before its four-hour stretch was over, one of the most striking theatre experiences I have ever had. By sheer necessity, all problems of theatre style vanished: here was the real main stream, the essence of an art that stems from the story-teller looking round his audience and beginning to speak. All the theatres in the town had been destroyed, but here, in this attic, when an actor in a chair touching our knees began quietly to say, “It was in the year of 18—that a young student, Roman Rodianovitch Raskolnikov…,” we were gripped by living theatre.

The art that stems from the story-teller looking round his audience and beginning to speak,” the art that can take place in the most cramped conditions—on the Paris stage, which consists of a simple, squarish mat, there is space enough for the seven actors to come and go, until the First Player arrives and Hamlet makes his request for the Hecuba speech (II.ii.430). The First Player is Yoshi Oïda. We have heard him already, as one of the company, and seen him “out of character.” Now, in the space of a few seconds, he undergoes two rapid and witty transformations. In the first, he shuffles on, with the simpering, giggling, embarrassed manner of a Japanese commoner shown into the presence of a prince. Hamlet, the African actor Bakary Sangaré, greets him with the traditional warmth, and makes his traditional request. Oïda settles down cross-legged on the mat, and Hamlet sits extremely close to him, as if we were back in that Hamburg garret.

And now comes Oïda’s second transformation. It reminded me of that moment in Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha in which the impostor learns a particular facial mannerism of the Emperor, which, when he deploys it, will convince the whole court. Oïda takes up his position, and as he does so the mantle of authority falls upon him. All deference vanishes. It is Hamlet’s turn to be deferential. Oïda begins the speech, and the speech is in Japanese. All its style …

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