The magus of truth and imagination

In 1973 Peter Brook attended the Royal Court theatre, London, opening of John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard’s The Island, their play about the notorious apartheid prison on Robben Island in which Nelson Mandela, among others, was then incarcerated. ‘Nothing had prepared us for it,” Brook says. ‘It opened with 14 minutes of silence during which these two men breaking rocks on stage made the audience live an experience which was at that very moment going on in South Africa.
No documentary film could have had the same force. You felt the hot sun, the muscles in pain.”

Brook had been a leading innovator in British and world theatre for the previous two decades, but this was his first encounter with a new kind of South African theatre. The play had emerged from improvisation, rather than a written text. It was then workshopped in clandestine performances to black audiences, with their responses and suggestions incorporated into future performances.

‘John Kani did the most extraordinary thing,” Brook recalls. ‘When Winston got some imaginary dirt in an eye wound, John pulled out his cock, peed into his hand and cleaned his friend’s eye. It was a moment of such tenderness and also such truth. There was no water in their prison yard, so how else could he do it? It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre in terms of its relation between imagination and absolute truth.”

The relationship between imagination and truth has been at the heart of Brook’s 60-year career. Now aged 82, he began with ground-breaking productions of Shakespeare in his early 20s and since then has assumed a magus-like status, injecting the most intense spiritual and political passion into a vast range of classical and contemporary drama.

Brook’s association with Kani, Ntshona and Fugard’s work has continued ever since. His new production of their 1972 play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, is playing at the Barbican in the French-language version from Brook’s Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. While the play was written out of the South African experience of the apartheid pass laws (which required non-whites to have state permission to live and work in a particular area), he explains, it now has a wider global significance. ‘In the play, the character cannot move [30km] from the country into the city without a passport. Now there is mass migration and people are moving thousands of [km] across the world in containers. But that terrible fear of being asked at any time for their papers is the same.”

The particular circumstances of early 1970s South Africa gave the play a special power. ‘Johannesburg was among the only fully developed urban cultures in Africa at the time. There was industry and jazz and a very flashy side that operated right next to an older African tribal culture.

The result was an ability to articulate horrendous experiences with an ancient perspective and a newer and sharper humour of the streets. John and Winston could find humour without softening any pain and horror, and that is something I have always tried to do. Nothing is worse than something entirely heavily and solidly grim and miserable. Equally, nothing is worse than the situation I found as a child in the London theatre where everything was glossed over in the name of charm and lightness.”

Brook was born in 1925, the second son of Ida and Simon Brook, whose Russian name Bryk had been anglicised by an immigration officer at the English port of Dover.

He was sent to Westminster School in London, where he endured a certain amount of ribbing about his father’s pharmaceutical company product: the laxative Brooklax. (Critics of a psychological bent noted that his experiences of this schoolboy cruelty didn’t find true expression until his 1963 film version of Lord of the Flies.)

An interest in performance was apparent from the beginning. He staged a now-legendary one-boy puppet version of Hamlet for his family when he was seven, complete with a programme entitled ‘Hamlet: By William Shakespeare and Peter Brook”.

By the time he was 16, in an early version of a gap year, he worked as an intern at the Crown Film Unit, which was producing war-time propaganda. It gave him a practical knowledge of scripting and production, and when he went up to Oxford University in 1942 he was an instant college star. Kenneth Tynan, a contemporary, later wrote that ‘it was as if he’d come up [to the university] by public request. Rather like a high- pressure executive arriving to take over a dying business.” Brook’s most famous college production was Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, for which he recruited occultist Aleister Crowley to give advice on how to summon demons.

When he entered the professional theatre, he searched hard among the escapist and romantic fare to find ‘anything that might bring some unexpected jolt of real life and excitement” .To find the theatre he envisaged, he soon realised he’d have to do it himself. By the age of 20 he was directing at the Birmingham Rep theatre in Birmingham England; a year later his ‘Watteauesque” Love’s Labour’s Lost at Stratford was a critical triumph. Another year on and he was director of productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, although he was soon sacked after objections to a Salvador Dali-designed Salome. Brook is still proud of his early precocious successes, but says that, while everyone talks about ‘Shakespeare and Stratford”, equally important was a lesser-known staging of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon in 1950.

One shining light for Brook in the 1950s was director Tyrone Guthrie, whom Brook first encountered at Covent Garden rehearsing a crowd scene of 80 people. ‘And he gave every member a tiny little personal thing to do so they weren’t just a block. He cast the dancer Robert Helpmann as Hamlet who, as he had no time to analyse the text as great actors did, played it at a tremendous speed. Suddenly Hamlet was the most exciting play.”

Another important inspiration came from Brook’s trip to Soviet Russia in the early 1950s with Paul Scofield’s Hamlet. Amid a lot of ‘boring, academic stagings I saw a revolutionary production of Mayakosky’s The Bedbug, which was a very dangerous play as it had been banned by Stalin”. In an extraordinary piece of serendipity the production was directed by his cousin, Valentin Plouchek, although the two men had never met. ‘The day after seeing the play I got a call from someone asking me questions about my father. I told them I was a British citizen and would not answer their questions. Then he said he wasn’t the KGB but thought he might be my cousin.”

Back in the United Kingdom, Brook adopted an increasingly international perspective. His 1955 Stratford Titus Andronicus echoed Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty.

He was taken aback at the first performance of Jean Genet’s Les Negres in New York and the tensions it generated in a multiracial audience. Later in New York he saw the Living Theatre’s The Brig about prison conditions.

‘There was just this set of bars through which the audience watched the terrifying things going on. Judith Malina is reviving it this year because, after all these years, it has taken on a new relevance. It is also about Guantanamo.”

In the 1960s and 1970s Brook’s production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, set in an asylum, the Royal Shakespeare Company anti-Vietnam war protest event United States, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept him at the forefront of theatrical development. His writing on the theatre saw him cast as a guru: the opening lines of his 1968 book The Empty Space have reverberated ever since. ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, while someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

Presenting Sizwe Banzi at the Barbican theatre in London with Francophone African actors has provided another dimension to the play.

‘The French lightness and tempi are different from John and Winston’s, but they bring something new.” It has travelled to Istanbul, Beirut, Jerusalem and Ramallah before London. ‘While everyone knows this is South Africa, it is like Hamlet theoretically taking place in Denmark. The days of Olivier dying his hair blond to be a Dane are gone and this South Africa is both local and universal. And that is our challenge and our goal. In the theatre, if you are universal you risk being bland, and if you are specific you risk being too narrow. So you always want something to be both specific and universal. The trick is to bring in the human specifics without losing what makes it more than specific. To tell the story of a real world and to tell the story of a real man.” —

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