Who knows in how many directorial breasts a conflict rages between a desire for intimacy and the yearning for the very grandest of effects? On the one hand, there is the ambition to mount, in the smallest of theaters, a drama of the most intense kind, in which the actors are never obliged to raise their voices to suit the acoustics of the space, because nothing is going to be missed. Working through improvisation, perhaps, or through other revered techniques of self-discovery, the performers arrive at dangerous levels of intensity and verisimilitude.
When the result succeeds, it is a tantalizing triumph for actor, director, and audience alike, since the piece can only ever be seen by a few hundred people at a time (or fewer). But commitment to the idiom gives its own profound satisfactions. One might say: “This, and only this, is the kind of work I really want to do. This is my zone of integrity. This is my place for the genuine.”
At the other end of the scale we find the beckoning impresarios, looking to fill great hangars and arenas with a mass audience, for whom the distinctive part of the experience is that very participation of the mob—“the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.” Here everything depends on a military standard of drill. Even the striking of the set (as I learned at Salzburg’s great festival theater) is a precision performance in which the stagehands have been carefully rehearsed and in which there is no room for the slightest improvisation. Most theater repeats itself in some way, but these vast productions are contraptions designed to leave nothing to chance. The things they achieve can only be achieved in front of an audience of thousands. Sometimes whole theaters are built just to contain them.
A suitable presiding spirit, for such venues, might be that of one of modern drama’s founders, Edward Gordon Craig, who in 1904 spoke of the necessity of the most exacting discipline. Each actor, he said, must follow precisely the movements prescribed for him by the director
to a third of an inch. Then it is possible to get a sort of amusing design into the play, all sorts of nice lines. But what is the good of designing scenery and trying to get some expression into it, if the actors go moving about in it just as they like?
To the friends of the Intimate Theater, this may well sound like heresy, or like a reversed set of priorities. But the example of a classical stage fight illustrates Craig’s point. Hamlet and Laertes must follow their prescribed movements to the third of an inch—nobody wants either of them to have some bright, improvisatory idea some night.
On the one hand, then, we have the theatrical crucible, Peter Brook’s Empty Space, in which gesture, word, and expression are each given a supercharge of significance. And on the other hand, theater as understood by the Cirque du Soleil, a machine designed to amaze thousands, night after night. Here the voice must be electronically enhanced if it is to compete with the band. Here too it is interesting to note that the ancient art of theatrical makeup, routinely abandoned by modern drama, is found to be alive, costume is exorbitant, and the sets explore the bounds of technology.
It is a mistake to think that if the one theater is high then the other must be low, or one artistic and the other commercial. The two strands of the tradition are intertwined, and we see not only Robert Lepage moving between Las Vegas and the Met’s Ring, but also François Girard, director of The Red Violin and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, presenting the Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, while planning the Met’s forthcoming Parsifal. (Lepage himself is currently working on Totem, Cirque du Soleil’s next touring show.) And it was precisely because I could see that I had missed out on the source of a certain aesthetic that I wanted to catch up with it in Zarkana, to understand what was quite meant by the expression, “Oh, that’s just pure Cirque du Soleil,” spoken, perhaps, more in irritation than anything else, but meaning something, nonetheless.
I was no great admirer of Lepage’s Rheingold, asking myself, at the end of the evening, whether there had been anything done by any of the performers, any gesture or action, which might remotely be said to linger in the mind. I could think of nothing. There was a fascinating set, the novelty of which was that, when the singers scrambled about on it, they dislodged little landslides of pebbles, as from a mountain scree. And this presented the audience with a technological conundrum—how was this achieved? How many LED screens (if that is what they were) were involved, and by what means were they made interactive? So we sat and watched Wagner, and thought about computers.
We would have done well to remember that this tyranny of design comes from a tradition as old as Edward Gordon Craig. “What is the good of designing scenery, and getting some expression into it, if the actors go moving about in it just as they like?” It was the scenery that was expressive, and the singers, to tell the truth, were treated as if they were lucky to have been allowed anywhere near it.
To the pure, all things are pure, and if we look at theatrical history through the eyes of the pure we will be bound to pick out, as significant developments, moments in the prehistory of Brook’s Empty Space—Ibsen’s radical reduction in the size of the cast, Strindberg’s Intimate Theater, Brecht’s epic stage, and so forth. We overlook the sort of theater, thriving in the nineteenth century and dating back at least to the Baroque, but leaving no trace in text or music or theory, in which audiences were wowed by theatrical effects: by limelight itself, by costumed crowds, by real lakes crossed by imaginary boats, by—indeed—the sort of stage effects Wagner must have imagined for Rheingold.
But it is in that tradition, at Radio City Music Hall, that Zarkana plays out, in an astonishing set about which the program note tells us: “More than 3 million pixels make up the permanent LED wall that measures 90 feet wide by 40 feet tall. The LED arch is composed of 118 custom-built panels.” This arch, the ultimate in “expressive scenery,” is made up of huge, realistic digital snakes, which react to the triumphs of the trapeze artists, with retracted heads, opened jaws, and flickering tongues. Consciously animating the aesthetic of Art Nouveau, paying tribute to Lalique and, at one point, to the Paris Métro, Stéphane Roy’s designs use everything from the scenic qualities of textile—curtains that fall in an instant, banners that are tossed magnificently across to stage—to the infinitely suggestive LED wall.
If one asks, though, the same question I was moved to ask of Lepage’s inane Wagner—was there anything memorable, any gesture or action that lingered in the mind—the answer is entirely different. For the heroes of the evening were undoubtedly the performers, the trapeze artists and acrobats and the one juggler (one juggler goes a long way), and what they did was almost always astonishing. Or if, to the circus connoisseur, a particular routine was not perhaps as difficult as it looked, to the rest of us it came across as death-defying, because the performers took care to dramatize every achievement. Of course they were not attempting, for the first time, to pull off a particular stunt, but they pointed up the difficulty of what they were doing—taking a skipping-rope up on the high wire, for instance—just as the music pointed up the drama of the moment, in the same way that film music does. There is a place, in this circus aesthetic, for nonchalance and sprezzatura. But a higher value is set on creating the illusion of a great effort succeeding, an extraordinary problem surmounted by a superhuman effort of will and skill.
Peter Brook’s company brought to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College A Magic Flute, the eighty-six-year-old director’s last production for his Bouffes du Nord theater. It is amazing to think of Brook’s achievement, going back to his precocious tenure from 1947 to 1950 as head of productions at Covent Garden, where he directed a Salome for which Salvador Dalí designed the sets. Around this time, working on Romeo and Juliet, he wrote to George Bernard Shaw for his advice, and was told to concentrate on young lovers and hard fighting: an excellent note for that play, and see how the link takes us, in one step, back to the theater of the nineteenth century.
Brook’s Magic Flute, just like his Carmen of 1981, dispensed with orchestra in favor of a piano, and concentrated on young singers and hard acting. The text had been freely rewritten, and music from elsewhere in the Mozart canon interpolated at will—the opening bars of the Fantasia in D minor, and a little piece written for glass harmonica, among others. The reduction in scale was, in itself, nothing remarkable—the resources used were much like those employed by the educational touring company Opera for All in my childhood. But the interpretive freedom was pure Brook, and once again he was suggesting, as his Carmen suggested, that we still have a long way to go in exploring intimate opera. The singing voice does not have to be produced at such stress levels as suit the hangar or the arena or anachronistically large venues like the Met. There is a truth to be found by analogy with the intimate theater.
The set design consisted of bamboo poles, more or less vertical, stuck into metal plates, and these poles could be rearranged at will to indicate walls and other sorts of barriers. At one point in the evening they are knocked over, to telling effect: they make a sound like a breaking storm as they go. Casually left on the stage floor was a short length of bamboo that turned out to be the magic flute itself, and also, in a last moment reminiscent of Prospero’s farewell, a magic wand that the actor William Nadylam—the directorial alter ego, who plays a variety of parts—causes to disappear.
This was Peter Brook’s own farewell, a moment that provoked many tender memories, going back, in my case, to the Marat/Sade at Stratford in 1964. Of all directors, Brook has been the most consistently true to his gifts. Never distracted by commercial work, but taking the chance offered by enlightened French state support and turning a lovingly preserved shabby theater, the Bouffes du Nord, into something copied internationally; always bringing the dramatic question back to its simplest elements; nurturing an international group of players, not after the manner of “color-blind casting” but in such a way as to emphasize the character and strengths of each performer; aiming to create, in an individual production, not a contraption but a complex event that, for those who wished to draw a lesson from it, pointed to the way a future theater might be: in short, a lifetime of the most fruitful speculation.