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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 Space1 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.2

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, its rhetoric, is to come from the Japanese tradition, a choice which at once makes you grin at its appropriateness while you switch your attention mechanism into a different mode. You are going to have to rely on your memory now, and on your imagination, as much as on what you see and hear.

The moment is typical of Brook, but it is also authentically Shakespearean. The Player’s speech, you will recall, is indeed in a different language from that of the surrounding play—so different that Dryden doubted it could be by Shakespeare, and many scholars have thought that it must have been taken from some old tragedy. But Harold Jenkins, in the Arden edition, pointed out that the subject of the speech—the killing of a father, the description of a mourning queen—is absolutely appropriate for Hamlet’s drama. The language of the speech, Jenkins argues, quoting Schlegel,

demands a style which rises above normal theatrical elevation as the latter does above natural speech. This is the simple justification of the hyperbole and high-astounding terms. It is not necessarily incompatible with an element of parody, but the speech stands in too close a relationship to the tragedy which contains it for ridicule to be accepted as a dominant note.

Quite often you will see the Player’s speech treated as a piece of bombast, patronized, as it were, by both Hamlet and the First Player as if it were just some awful old thing from their shared past. But what Hamlet actually says, when requesting to hear it, is that it comes from a very good play which never succeeded because it was “caviare to the general,” but there was one speech in it which he “chiefly loved,” the speech about Priam’s slaughter. And Hamlet begins, after a false start:

The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d
With heraldry more dismal. Head to foot
Now is he total gules, horridly trick’d
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Bak’d and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
To their lord’s murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o’ersized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.

Coleridge thought this “epic pomp” superb, and, whether you agree or not, the meaning of the drama requires that it come across as superb. It certainly, or rather the rest of it, sounds superb in Japanese. One recalls how appropriate a Japanese transposition is for Shakespeare, whether performed by the Japanese themselves (as in Kurosawa’s film versions) or in a Japanese style (as in Ariane Mnouchkine’s stage productions in Paris a decade or so ago).

Brook’s company is international, but Brook’s casting is not, as the phrase has it, “color-blind.” A Japanese actor is valued for his Japaneseness, an African for what he may bring from Africa, which in this case, since both Hamlet and his father are African, includes a most convincing solution to the “problem” of the Ghost. We understand Africa to be a place in which the continued existence of ancestors is a simple fact of life. When Sotigui Kouyaté comes to speak to his son, he is a physical presence, not an immaterial being. And the son accepts the apparition and its physical contact with him. There is no sense at all that this is some kind of exceptional event—no sense, that is, on Hamlet’s part. And when the Ghost speaks, he too adopts some African language, and we are once again thrown back on the resources of memory and imagination.

Qui Est Là is not a complete Hamlet. It is a mosaic of quotations from Brook’s favorite theoretical influences—Edward Gordon Craig, Meyerhold, Stanislavsky, Brecht, and Artaud—which the actors present and seek to demonstrate, slipping without transition from what comes across as a Platonic dialogue on theater into a series of scenes from Hamlet. What is tantalizing—frustrating even—is to see suggested a whole production of Hamlet (the Japanese version, the African version) only to have it whisked away again as we return to the dialogue about theater. What is delightful is to see Brook concentrating on parts of the play which do not always form the high spots of an average production, but doing so not because he is trying to redeem them—doing so because they are central to his purpose. The Player’s speech, after all, is there to provoke Hamlet’s thoughts on acting: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?”

Brook’s career has been a source of some controversy. Recognition came to him early; from 1943 on he was directing in London, and according to Kenneth Tynan it was his 1950 production of Measure for Measure which established him as the best director in Britain. The world of his early successes, if we could walk back into it, would seem wildly outmoded today, just as the hairstyles in his film of Lear (made in 1969 and released in 1971) look hilariously of their period. Because the name of Brook seems synonymous with the idea of modern theater, we tend to forget how much time has passed since he established his ascendancy. The Empty Space is a wonderfully persuasive book on the whole, and applicable in long passages to the problems of today’s stage. Then one is brought up short by a sentence such as: “The rules of British censorship prevent actors adapting and improvising in performance.” And at once you realize how utterly different were the circumstances in which Brook began in the theater, when the Lord Chamberlain was still, literally, rewriting the script, and when neither the Royal Shakespeare Company nor the National Theatre existed.

Two decades ago, after the international triumph of his Midsummer Night’s Dream, Brook was lured to Paris by the offer of support for his Centre International des Créations Théâtrales, and since then he has rarely worked in Britain, although he has taken productions there. What Brook wanted had been very clearly flagged in The Empty Space: he wanted much, much longer production periods than the economics of the British theater have ever allowed. Paris could see the point of such demands. Paris is the most enviable of theatrical capitals because it has, for years, seen the point of giving generous support to a number of distinguished directors in order to enable them to mount really considered, well-founded work.

The genius of the British theater, by contrast, has always been expressed in productions which get by on modest to stingy budgets and short rehearsal periods. This takes its toll on British directors. For a while, they put up with it, perhaps even thrive on the hand-to-mouth existence. Then a feeling which, viewed from one angle, might look like self-pity and, from another, like exasperated long-suffering, begins to eat the soul. The worm turns. British directors start looking elsewhere, or looking to types of drama which will be financially more rewarding. They float off into the world international opera, and spend much of the rest of their lives in hotel rooms. Or they yearn to break into film. They yearn, in general, for rewards they feel should have come their way. Very few British directors manage to give their careers a satisfactory shape.

Brook went off on his great theatrical journeys around the world, then settled in Paris to found his center for research into an international language of theater. He did not break his ties with the Royal Shakespeare Company, although when he did return to direct Antony and Cleopatra the result was not entirely happy. It is said that the company was unwilling to submit to the kind of discipline (every actor being present throughout the course of every rehearsal) and the exercises which he wanted. Glenda Jackson, who in Marat/Sade would have done anything he wanted, was now a bit too much of a star, and her rebelliousness showed in some actressy mannerisms.

In Paris, on the other hand, Brook achieved not only the conditions and the kind of company he wanted; he also was assigned the mesmerizing Bouffes du Nord, the old vaudeville theater whose gorgeous palimpsest of an interior will be familiar to fans of the film Diva. The Bouffes du Nord is now, since the construction of the Channel Tunnel, only three hours from London by train. Leaving the Gare du Nord on foot you turn left and left again, walk to the end of the street and there it is, on your left. Nothing could be easier.

But even if the tunnel had been in existence twenty years ago, one would still feel that Paris represented a kind of exile for Brook. Yet his work there has become a reference point, and perhaps a reproach to the values prevalent in London, the values and failings he analyzes so well in “The Deadly Theatre,” the first of the lectures in The Empty Space. It is not that great things are not achieved in London. It is rather that great things are hard to sustain. That is why one feels that, for all the bumpiness of the ride, Brook’s career has been one that any British director would envy. Certainly he has not fallen prey to that characteristic self-pity.

Brook knows, as a director, that a production has only a limited life—perhaps five years at the most. He knows too that the ideas of the great directors of the past, their theoretical formulations, are not absolute truths to be laid down for all time, but ideas to be used at a particular moment. Every generation, he says, must find its own way afresh, step by step. So, in Qui Est Là, he brings us these great voices of the past, and creates his Shakespearean mosaic, for the sake of the resonances these voices may have for the present. It is an attempt to sum up a century of theater, and half a century of Brook’s own practice and thought.

  1. 1

    Atheneum, 1968.

  2. 2

    The Empty Space, pp.44, 80.

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