Theatre in Wales

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Autumn Theatre Book (2)- Lifetime’s Insight into Shakespeare

Theatre Director Book

Peter Brook , Nick Hern Books , October 17, 2013
Theatre Director Book by Peter Brook “The Quality of Mercy” ends with a chronology of the Shakespeare productions directed by Peter Brook. The number is twenty-two, the time span runs from 1945 to 2002 and the locations, beginning with the Birmingham Rep, include Stratford, London, Paris, Moscow, New York and a World Tour. It is a slim collection, nine essays, an epilogue and an index, but it is slim in the way that Julian Barnes’ “Sense of an Ending” is slim. Bulk and depth do not necessarily correlate. Peter Brook’s book is packed with eloquence, insight and interest.

He writes from the stance of a practitioner. “Theatre lives and breathes in the present…In theatre today, yesterday, anywhere in the world, the author is present as a living human being.” He homes in on how one particular actor, Irene Worth in 1962, interprets the role of Goneril in a brilliant new light. He describes Vivien Leigh in that most daunting of Shakespeare’s plays, “Titus Andronicus”, and sees a kinship in the acts of cruelty found in Kabuki legends.

The arts beyond theatre flow through Brook’s approach. Working in opera spurs his understanding of how to stage Shakespeare. The notes in the music make “a world of infinitely tiny details.” That leads him to conceive “a play of Shakespeare’s must be played as one great sinuous phrase.”

For a production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” he looks deep into canvases of Watteau and then “imposed him on a reluctant designer.” In Watteau’s Arcadian scenes he takes note of the enigmatic figure often watching from the side. This leads him to recognise “the intuition of the young Shakespeare that lightness needs the shadow of darkness to make it real.”

Brook learns from Peter Weiss and Richard Rodgers. He asks the composer if he has “a stash of melodies waiting to be used.” “Of course not!” is the reply “I need the words.” Brook advises speakers of verse and singers to listen to Piaf and Billie Holiday “where the passion, the feeling, the intonation, the tempo all arise from the word.”

All theatre-makers carry within them a brace of aesthetic convictions, even if implicit. An initial powerful picture drives a Brook production. Bosch and Brueghel illuminate a “Measure for Measure.” But interpretation can lead to a too swift design “no longer in harmony with the new forms arising in rehearsal through the work of the actors.” He is impatient with the notion that concept has pre-eminence. “A cook has a concept, but it becomes real during the cooking.” He is not impressed by “the visual arts, “concept” now replaces all the qualities of hard-earned skills of execution and development.” In theatre “a concept is a result and comes at the end.”

A lighter essay pursues the question of Shakespeare’s identity. A scholar in Sicily has unearthed a family who fled the Inquisition from Palermo to England. The family name is Crollolancia, literally “shake spear”. Max Beerbohm in a later century sets out to prove that the works of Tennyson were in fact authored by Queen Victoria. He trawls through “In Memoriam” and, sure enough, finds a line that is an anagram for “Alf didn’t write this I did Vic.”

Shakespeare is infinitely elastic. For Brook, the work has a centre. It is “the question of order and chaos, chaos and order.” As humans “we are within chaos” and respond with “a profound, and sometimes despairing, need for order.” Plays and players, verse and staging run richly through “the Quality of Mercy”. The title essay is the last, its subject the last play. It is indispensable reading before any view of “the Tempest”.

Nick Hern has produced “the Quality of Mercy” as a slim, elegantly handsomely hardback. As a physical product the pleasure of holding it is akin to the pleasure and stimulus to be had in its reading.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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