Peter Brook is shouting at me. Loudly. And he's shouting at me about Shakespeare. Not that he's angry. It's just that the world's greatest theatre director is talking to me on his mobile from Heathrow Airport and the competition is cacophonous.
He is on his way back home to his base in Paris after a trip to London, where he has mounted a triumphant production of five short Beckett plays, under the collective title Fragments, at the Young Vic. We had met earlier in the week for a conversation over lunch at the theatre. I had confronted him with a thought experiment in which he participated with fascinating results. But, afterwards, I realised that I could have made the hypothetical situation sharper and more revealing. He had therefore agreed to a further bout of questioning.
The phone conversation climaxed in a moment of pure Brook. "For the first time in my life," he said, "I feel like Shakespeare. Here I am with a small instrument – a mobile phone – through which I am using heightened language to lift the human voice and make it heard through all the life going on around me in these noisy shops and queues and cafés. The small instrument Shakespeare used was the Globe, which transmitted language and the human voice so that it was heard through the babble of the stews and the shops and the brothels crowded on Bankside."
This analogy is quintessential Brook – the man whose 1968 book The Empty Space became the seminal text for modern theatre-makers and for lovers of the art form. It's characteristic in the way that the image is plucked, on the instant, from the present circumstances, improvised with real-life props near to hand, or, in this case, literally in hand. No one, in conversation, can make his interlocutor more aware of the shared experience and charged possibilities of the current moment than Brook. He's a living advertisement for the theatre, and for its special and tonic properties.
True, his analogy breaks down in various respects (obviously, a mobile phone communicates with an individual rather than with a community). But these considerations pale beside what is really important: the rinsed clarity Brook gives here to the perception of Globe as a piece of custom-built technology, and to a sense of the primacy of voice in Shakespearean drama.
"I see a voice...", cries Bottom, and only a pedantic fool would fail to see the deep, if semi-inadvertent, wisdom of that remark in relation to the dramatic medium in Shakespeare's day. The analogy is typical, too, in its suggestion of trans-historical continuity. There are similar problems, by and large, through the ages – it's just the solutions that are different. And theatre constitutes a particularly interesting instance of this.
When we met for lunch at the Young Vic, Brook was in the last stages of rehearsal for Fragments, which ranges in tone from existential slapstick to the mesmerising monologue Rockaby – pitch-dark but implying a lost radiance, just as the presence of a shadow entails a light source.
The show began life at Brook's Paris theatre, Bouffes du Nord, two years ago, and last year visited the studio space at the Young Vic. In the current, highly recommended run, it has colonised the main house. The great mistake most people make with Brook is to suppose that he is a rarefied guru, interested only in dispensing the distillate of 83 years' wisdom, in carefully rationed drops, to grateful disciples and uncomprehending journalists. In fact, he's as world-savvy and also as pragmatic as they come.
The thought experiment that I had devised for the great director as a possible framework for our conversation is as follows. Imagine that you are given the use of a time-machine and permission to travel back to three theatrical events anywhere in the past. If your aim was to deepen your understanding of the nature of theatre, which of the myriad possibilities would you choose, and why?
I had tested the question out on a couple of clever, learned friends. One said that it would be easier for him to decide than for Brook, as one of the occasions he would choose would be Brook's 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream, the momentous white-box staging with trapezes, spinning-plate flowers and fist-clenched phalluses. This was the last production Brook mounted in this country before leaving for France, a country where they are prepared to fund mavericks.
There are innumerable moments in Brook's long, packed, and amazingly varied career that would be worth le détour for theatre aficionados in an imaginary cultural Tardis. In fact, you are spoilt for choice – particularly if you are under 40 and therefore unable to have seen some of his greatest triumphs. Would you travel back to see Laurence Olivier in his Stratford production of Titus Andronicus, which he directed in 1955 as a veteran of 30? Or would you touch down in one of those African villages where – with just a carpet, a few simple props, and an international company of actors that included Helen Mirren – he tried to find the spark that could ignite a theatrical event between anyone, anywhere. Would you travel to a production from the post-England years (in Afghanistan or Persepolis or in South Africa) or would you, say, want to have a gawp at one of the early succès de scandale, such as the notorious staging of Strauss's Salome, with designs by Salvador Dali, that saw Brook's brief career as resident producer at Covent Garden over before he was 25?
After granting the problem a few seconds' close consideration, Brook replies that he would choose to go to "absolutely none of them, for the simple reason that theatre exists only in the present moment". His remark establishes the theme that runs through our talk – the tension between theatre as a present-tense medium and as a repository of its own heritage of accumulated wisdom and practices; between theatre as the intersection of the here-and-now and as a medium of revival, where plays are constantly resurrected for reinterpretation.
I try to raise objections to his purist approach – saying that, without wishing to be part of any time-hopping dirty-mac brigade, I would be fascinated to witness one of the plays put on by the Elizabethan/Jacobean boys' companies. They were obliged to enact very "adult" V C fare – psychologically kinky and bloodthirsty tragedies. I'd like to get a sense of the sort of taste that was being catered for, and to try to work out how it overlapped, if at all, with the taste Shakespeare created. Brook implies that such an interest is too narrowly sociological.
To give me an insight into why he thinks the thought experiment has deep flaws, he says: "Let me give you two examples from my own experience. I remember seeing film clips of Sarah Bernhardt, and thinking that there is no way that we could properly re-enter the perception of her held by the cameraman who had her in his viewfinder. I also remember seeing a theatre ceremony in a Bengali village, and then seeing it again when they brought it over to London as part of an international festival.
"It wasn't the same thing at all, at the matinée with nice Kensington ladies who looked on politely. They brought the dances; they brought the mise-en-scène. But they couldn't bring the earth or the people of the village who gave the ceremony meaning. Yet, at the same time, it's true that the present moment is hard to capture even in one's own culture. Gertrude Stein said, about Picasso, that none of us can see the present directly with the eyes of the present."
So time-travelling to a production in the past would, though a live experience, be akin to watching the video of a party to which one had not been invited, or to which one had turned up massively late and with the wrong gifts for the hosts? "Yes," he answers. But the past, as embodied within plays, surely sends a great blood transfusion into the present, which is always in danger of becoming parochial in its self-absorption. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. And what they do and how they do it is food for thought.
There's a recently published series of aperçus by the English director Simon Usher. He takes several amusing pot-shots at directors who try to invest the past with the values of the present on the grounds that it would been better for people back then if they had been more like us now. Or, as Usher pithily puts it: "Today's theatre says: we know better than people in the past, and sets out to correct their mistakes; so Hamlet rejects Ophelia, Angelo rapes Isabella, and so on."
Sometimes Brook highlights this tricky trade-off between present and past via international casting. In his third and most recent production of Hamlet, starring Adrian Lester as the Prince, he assigned the role of Ophelia to an Indian actress who was able to lend a note of contemporary urgency to the character's oppression by her overbearing, intrusive father.
Or, as is the case in the current production of Fragments, he is creatively free with the playwright's stage directions in order to give the spirit of the piece a fresh lease of dramatic life. Instead of being rocked mechanically in her mother's chair, Kathryn Hunter's protagonist in Rockaby manually rocks an ordinary chair and sits down on it only in the final movement. This brilliantly emphasises an insight – that the character has for so long perceived herself in the third person that the end feels less like suicide than auto-euthanasia, and more like the product of pity than of despair.
The Beckett estate has developed a reputation for uncompromising rigidity over productions of his work (notoriously, it put a stop in 1994 to Deborah Warner's radical staging of Footfalls). But Brook reveals that, if you explain your intentions beforehand, they give you a fair hearing. He thinks that the writer's words are always sacrosanct, but that the stage directions can legitimately be modified.
"The two things come from different sources," he argues controversially, rather as Warner did when explaining her departure from the exact stage directions in Hedda Gabler. In her production, Gabler did not feed Lovborg's manuscript to the stove in melodramatic instalments. Instead, she shoved the whole thing in at once, then instantly panicked. This, argued Warner (and Brook would agree) communicates more sharply to a contemporary audience the cardinal point: that she is a coward. It's an instance, so their reasoning goes, where Ibsen was held back by the "stagey" conventions of his time. The modern director's duty is to be true to the spirit, even if this means violating the letter of stage directions.
It was only after lunch was over and Brook had been left for an interview for Channel 4 News that I realised that I should have given the thought-experiment a further twist. The question could have been posed in the form: if you could travel back in time and sit in on three rehearsals, which would you choose and why?
It turns out that he had already sat in on a few historic rehearsals, and that they were eye-openers, though often not in the manner anticipated. In 1951, he went to East Germany and watched Bertolt Brecht in action with the Berliner Ensemble. What he saw convinced him that the doctrinaire approach to this dramatist elsewhere was more pious and constricting abroad than in his heartland.
"The great Brecht actors nourished by the rich Central European tradition of dense and psychologically fed naturalism just didn't listen to Brecht's abstract theories, and he respected this. He intoned those theories mainly for disciples, who were easier to manage."
In general, though, he argues, the same flaws that are inherent in the notion of time-travelling back to public theatrical events would be found if you gatecrashed, in your temporary Tardis, directors' private rehearsals. Brook says that he finds it hard to mentally reconstruct his own productions, and that a lot of what gets into the history books is approximate, to say the least. For example, it's untrue to claim that the impact of the epochal Midsummer Night's Dream was dependent upon the celebrated white-box set. The company once did a run at the Roundhouse where the surround was entirely dispensed with. But, by that stage, the show was so was much part of the actors' bloodstream and instincts that the production flew as never before.
A historic figure, Brook has a principled suspicion of theatre history as a main subject. People who weren't born at the time of the Dream are now annotating studies of it, he remarks with some horror, and their high-minded speculations can be wide of the mark. He reveals that it was simply watching the way a dancer wearing cowboy boots had got to his feet in a Jerome Robbins ballet that gave him the idea, exploited in the Dream, that a show could be both classical and modern at the same time.
The irony is that our greatest living theatre director began by wanting to make films. His extraordinary theatrical career must count as one of the most prodigiously fertile detours in the history of art.
'Fragments' is at the Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7922 2922) to 13 September
The heirs to Brook: Four young directors who could set tomorrow's stages alight
By Alice Jones
Perhaps best known for directing "Equus" which saw Harry Potter naked, the 32-year old has not looked back since working for Richard Eyre at the National Theatre in her gap year. At 24, she was appointed the artistic director of the Southwark Playhouse, the youngest person to run a theatre.
His promenade production of "The Masque of the Red Death" was the most talked-about theatre production last year. The 30-year-old founder of Punchdrunk had already built up a loyal fanbase following his magnificent "Faust" set in a Wapping warehouse, but "The Masque" changed the face of London theatre.
Elliott, 41, is fast becoming the National Theatre's secret weapon, chalking up successes with "Pillars of the Community", "War Horse" and "Saint Joan", starring Anne-Marie Duff. The daughter of the theatre director and co-founder of Manchester Royal Exchange Michael Elliott, and Carry On actress Rosalind Knight, she also scored a hit with a sizzling Cuba-set "Twelfth Night" starring Tamsin Greig, for the RSC, which later transferred to the West End.
It was a spectacular Soviet-style "Macbeth", starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood (Goold's wife) at Chichester and then in the West End, which made Goold's name – and won him an Olivier Award. The 36-year-old artistic director of Headlong Theatre has not put a foot wrong since. "Six Characters in Search of an Author" is about to transfer from Chichester to the West End, and this year he is set to direct Pete Postlethwaite as Lear in Liverpool, Michael Gambon and David Walliams in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" in the West End, and a hotly anticipated "Oliver!".Reuse content