Books: Don't mention mother

THREADS OF TIME: A Memoir by Peter Brook Methuen pounds 17.99
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IN A Midsummer Night's Dream, we are told "A poet's eye ... / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven." Much the same could be said of the vision of Peter Brook, whose 1971 production of the Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company will forever stir the memory of those who saw it.

In so far as Brook reveals anything about himself in this loosely structured memoir, he paints an enthralling portrait of an intense individual caught, as he at one point says about certain actors, between "spiritual advancement" and the necessity of keeping "one's feet firmly on the ground".

His own image for the constantly conflicting claims upon him is of two horses galloping in opposite directions. "Peering into all my activities," he writes, "I saw double ... If there was a tug in one direction, then the pull went on equally in another: for each belief there was a disbelief, for each wish a refusal. Working in theatre made stronger my longing for films; if I was working joyfully with others while directing, then a need for the solitude of writing grew as well." Having, in the main, managed to mount one of the darting steeds and avoid being left behind dithering in the dust, Brook has led a fruitful, questing life, the essence of which is conveyed here in fragments and impressions rather than in concrete events and dates.

At first, his technique seems evasive. He begins, conventionally enough, in childhood but we learn little about the progress of that childhood or, for example, the rich-sounding history of his parents. There are some details about his father's attitudes and career, and passing references to his brother, but his mother is barely mentioned and his father's funeral is dealt with in a one-line reflection on the corpse. It may be that his Russian-Jewish background (the family name was originally Bryck) is merely incidental to him, along with his education and his early home-life, but it is frustrating, in such a mentally probing account as this, not to know the reasons for such relegation. Although Brook would reject the distinction, there is more about "work" here than about "life". Thus, while his wife, actress Natasha Parry, appears at several key points on his professional journeys, their two children do not.

That is not to say that what we do get is second-rate or dull. Far from it. There are many informative vignettes on Brook's encounters with such cultural luminaries as Dali and Beckett, and actors with whom he was demonstrably in tune - Paul Scofield, Glenda Jackson - and with whom he was not - Olivier. And the meat of the book is derived from the International Centre of Theatre Research, the continuing, Paris-based enterprise bringing together performers of different nationalities and traditions in an attempt to realise the universally communicative potential of drama. With Brook at its helm, this inspiring ensemble has toured the world in an endlessly rewarding round of give-and-take, gathering and presenting material. It has broken barriers and unlocked secret mythology from Africa to India. Its achievements include the stunning fusion of primitive gestures in Ted Hughes's Orghast over a quarter of a century ago in Persepolis, to the awe-inspiring Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, a production whose evolution is compellingly chronicled here.

Those wishing for detailed expositions of such celebrated Peter Brook productions as King Lear with Scofield, Marat/Sade, the Dream, or the films King Lear and Lord of the Flies, will be disappointed, though each is covered to some degree, as are his apprentice days in opera. On the other hand, this book offers an honest, intelligent analysis of the developing dramatic theory behind them all. Its author emerges as an undogmatic teacher, much concerned to acknowledge his debts to other teachers, and to share his insights. Of these, none exercises a greater influence over his work than the view that "artistic experience is just a reflection, an intimation of 'somewhere else,' it must never be confused with the indefinable thing itself."

On occasion, over the years, Peter Brook has appeared to be somewhat precious. One recalls his castigation of the audience at the Aldwych watching his dramatically orchestrated meditation on the Vietnam war, US, for not offering a helping hand to a "blinded peasant" wandering among them, when in fact the individual in question was an RSC actor with a paper bag over his head. And there are signs of this in the book. When describing an actor from Mali, he writes: "Undoubtedly a deep impression from his childhood in an African village had invaded every tiny muscle of his body."

But this is a memoir that, for all its avoidance of personal detail, takes you behind such artifice and into the mind of a creative, humanising thinker. It is a rewarding voyage.