Showman v. Shaman

David Edgar

  • Threads of Time by Peter Brook
    Methuen, 241 pp, £17.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 413 69620 0

For all its glories, the postwar British theatre has driven an embarrassing number of its brightest stars into exile. Conventional wisdom attributes this to a combination of parsimony and pragmatism. Finding the balance between inadequate subsidy and the need for the box office to make up the shortfall has contributed to a no-nonsense, suck-it-and-see anti-intellectualism. For socialist playwrights like John Arden and Edward Bond, the consequence, in one case, is external and in the other a form of internal exile. But the most noted instance of the prophet rejecting his own country is the director Peter Brook who, having forged a glittering career in the British theatre, from a consummate King Lear to a definitive Midsummer Night’s Dream, decided to up sticks and set up an international company of actors abroad.

Peter Brook describes Threads of Time as ‘a relatively full answer’ to the question ‘Why Paris?’ It is the first of his books not to have started out in another form. The Empty Space (1968) was based on lectures; The Shifting Point (1988) consists of articles, interviews, speeches, programme notes and other occasional writings drawn from his whole career; There Are No Secrets (1993) began life as three talks on acting delivered in Paris and Kyoto.

The new book is a memoir and started out as it is. Brook’s autobiographical writing is recognisably clean, clear and colloquial, only occasionally falling into what David Hare calls ‘the Esperanto patter of the higher mysticism’. From the start, Brook avoids ‘personal relationships, indiscretions, indulgences, excesses, names of close friends, private angers, family adventures or debts of gratitude’, though there is a wistful moment later on when he speaks of the ‘book that is not to be written’, a family history of memories that belong only to those who share them. Equally, he claims to have spurned ‘the well-known splendours and miseries of first nights’.

Unencumbered by private or professional anecdotage, Brook is able to chart two voyages of discovery. The first is his conversion from the magical illusion of the toy theatre (what he calls the conventional ‘two room’ theatre of darkened auditorium and blazingly illuminated stage) to the sterner, less flashy but infinitely more powerful theatrical space that is the shared possession of actors and audiences. Parallel to this journey is his trajectory from ambitious theatrical prodigy to Zen pupil, from busy careerist to seeker after spiritual truth. Like the rivers which provide so much of Brook’s theatrical and literary imagery, these two courses eventually meet, as Brook starts to work developmentally with small groups in the Royal Shakespeare Company. ‘For years,’ he writes, ‘I had rigorously kept my inner explorations and theatre experiments apart.’ However, ‘nothing can stay for long in watertight compartments’ and in the early Sixties Brook realised that, far from being the truth-seeker’s day job, ‘the theatre was becoming a practical field in which the possibility existed of observing laws and structures parallel to those found in traditional teaching.’

This book charts the consequences: the Theatre of Cruelty work at the RSC leading to the celebrated productions of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, the Vietnam-based ‘group-happening-collaborative spectacle’ US, and finally the Dream; the setting up of his Paris ensemble in the early Seventies; his search for the well-springs of mimesis in the villages of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and on to his productions based on the Sufi poem ‘The Conference of the Birds’, Colin Turnbull’s anthropology, the Hindu epic Mahabharata and Oliver Sacks’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Often Brook writes of unlearning as much as learning: the story he tells is of a man peeling away the trivial theatrical trickery that had first seduced him, and finding amid the ruins of the footlights and the proscenium arch the foundations of his chosen medium.

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