An elderly man in an anorak enters stage right, carefully, but without a stick. Next to him is middle-aged man, hovering deferentially at the elder’s elbow in case his assistance is required. It isn’t. This the 92-year old Peter Brook, apparently ageless, beginning an interview with Richard Eyre, ostensibly about his new set of essays on language and meaning, Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning. There is really no need for an introduction – the huge ovation says it all.
On the face of it a podium talk under the signage of the Follies set, ‘Glorifying the American Girl’, could hardly be a less appropriate setting for a talk by such a cerebral and earnest director; but, as we shall see, even that show found an indirectly pertinent place in the evening’s dialogue.
We began with a commentary on and tribute to the late Peter Hall, Brook’s younger contemporary. Brook spoke admiringly of Hall’s specific sense of what was lacking in a production, and where a practical solution might be found to that problem. He also recognised Hall’s willingness to embrace administration and engage in joshing and schmoozing with sponsors and governing bodies that was most unusual among directors, of any era. Brook and Michel St Denis were only able to work at the National in the 1970s because Hall took on all the administration himself in respect of their productions.
Their one area of disagreement lay in a different understanding of how form and structure relate to meaning in drama. Hall followed Dadie Rylands, his Cambridge mentor, arguing that form and structure come first and meaning second; whereas for Brook it has always been the other way around. The words ‘iambic fundamentalism’ were not uttered, but Brook clearly still thinks that Hall’s focus on verse forms and fixed stresses became in inhibiting not enabling factor, at least later in his career. This was a point where Eyre, a protégé of Hall’s, concurred.
For Brook, form is the vehicle that carries meaning and the last part of the task to be completed. Pointedly, he remarked that for him jazz, not Gilbert and Sullivan, was the model to follow, where the rhythm floated freely around a flexible beat. Another relevant image for the director to consider was ‘surfing over waves’, where the waves were fixed but your movement over them was not. It was always better in fact to think of waves, rather than a metronomic beat.
Though billed as an interview, really it was Brook who chose the topics and segues between them. Much of the discussion revolved around the differences between English and French and the implications this has for performance. This is the core of the new book too. The English language for Brook is essentially ‘mystical’, through cloaked by irony and deflecting humour; whereas French is conventionally ‘abstract’ or ‘rational’, offering clarity within a smaller vocabulary. With English you often do not know when and where a sentence will end: it is evolving. Whereas in French the language itself demands that a sentence is fully formed and complete before it is uttered.
One example of that process in action is that the word and in fact the concept of a ‘hunch’ is hard to render in French without a long explanatory paraphrase. That kind of intuition by definition defies immediate clarity, and only emerges over time, and mirrors the mental processes of thinking and speaking in English.
Brook explained how hunches have evolved in the course of his own work. After the great success of the Mahabarata he was deluged with requests to adapt and perform sagas and myths from various traditions, but determined instead, just through a hunch, that his next project should be in the here-and-now rather than in mythology. For a long time he was blocked: modern science was the subject he wanted to address, but how to do it when often the lives of scientists are themselves not the focus of interest?
Harold Pinter then introduced him to the work of Oliver Sacks and that allowed him to home in on brain science as his subject, reuniting both the human interest and the modernity of the research. The result of this original hunch was The Man Who.
Hunches can inform failures too. For example, when a designer came up with a circular platform for a set in a performance of Hamlet he immediately suspected this would not work, while not being able to say why. In retrospect he should have intervened before first rehearsal. In practice it turned out it was impossible for characters to create any real dynamic relationships across and within the circle because good stage movement depends on the creation of diagonals that in turn trigger zig-zags of stage movement.
And here came the sudden flashback to the set of Follies. You do have to wish that someone had said something like this to Dominic Cooke in the rehearsals for Follies where the Olivier’s famous revolve disrupts the party as much as it enables different perspectives.
Perhaps the most engaging part of the conversation was Brook’s extended comparison between the works of Shakespeare and a skyscraper. This chapter of the book, which originated in a lecture at the British Library last year (available online from their site), suggests that often even within the same line Shakespeare offers a perspective both spiritual (or as Brook prefers ‘esoteric’) and ‘profane’, the view of both the bird and of the worm. ‘To be or not to be’ is a line capable of almost infinite variation, from the plainest of meanings to a statement full of implications for what ‘being alive’ (another unintended Sondheim allusion?) actually involves.
Shakespeare offers a complete world because at many levels he provides a view of the ground, with many stories in between, and then a view out of the building up towards the stars…It seems appropriate to lead here into a quote from the book as Brook is one of those few people who naturally speaks in long paragraphs as he writes, perhaps indicating that long familiarity with French now leads him into fully formed sequences, even in English:
In his Complete Works and infinite number of levels can be seen – theme after theme, character after character, line after line, and in the end word upon word. One can either rush past or feel that within there exist shifting levels of meaning. Some take you a few floors up, some pull you a few floors down. Sometimes they lead to that moment of astonishment, a silence when – as we say so easily – words fail.
At this point we moved into Q & A. A man sitting next to me pointed out, as simple observation not flattery, that the shaping eloquence of Brook’s hands gestures provided a vocabulary of body language that helped to make up for the ambiguities and gaps of language. That, in other words, Brook’s own practice showed that there are many non-verbal means to shed light on texts that can cross cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Another questioner asked how any director knows whether or when you have succeeded. In response, Brook referred to a favourite saying of the late conductor Claudio Abbado – you feel you have communicated when there is a ‘moment of suspension’ at the end of a concert when the baton is lowered, and applause is held back in a brief focused point of suspended time.
There was also an intriguing exchange about the duty theatre owes to a wider social community. As someone who has tried specifically to make art for a wider community, and indeed to take many dramatic genres out to societies with no cultural experience of traditional theatre, he was asked again what the measure of success might be? Brook acknowledged that is was presumptuous and clearly false to say that you can change the world. What you can do in a small and concentrated field is to help two or three people of an evening. By being primed to do the best you can in the here and now, you may create wider resonances. Here he invoked his 1970s project Conference of the Birds, which took a Persian fable as a play across Saharan Africa to test how universal the message and impact of theatre could be.
Finally, he was asked an impossible question on which comes first and determines the other – language or culture – one of those ‘chicken and egg’ questions, which first required a working definition of culture, the proper subject for another conversation! But in a sense he has already addressed that question back in the 1970s through that remarkable African journey.
This impressive discussion showed that in his tenth decade Brook has lost none of his questioning spirit and ability to imagine possible theatrical representations of texts that no one else has turned to before. His determination to continue to reimagine the possibilities of language and its representation as drama compels us, in turn, to think again about what it is to be human and the limits and possibilities of how we evoke and analyse and rework our condition. His new book is required reading for anyone committed to the capacity of dramatic form to interpret and enlarge our understanding, and who wishes to get to the heart of Shakespeare.