Theatre: Master of the empty space

Thirty years on, Peter Brook's classic critique of contemporary theatre remains unmatched. Despite what he says.
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The Independent Culture
When you go to visit a theatrical visionary at his London pied- a-terre you don't altogether expect to be greeted with the question: "What do you know about plumbing?" "Roughly as much," I respond inwardly, "as you'd find Her Majesty knows about spot-welding." Peter Brook will shortly have the opportunity of raising this topic, as he's over from his Paris base for his investiture as a Companion of Honour. "I'm not sure which spot the Queen touches you on for that," he grins.

The timing of this rare honour is perfect because it coincides with the eighth Peter Brook/Empty Space Award, given annually to the best body of work produced in a studio venue receiving little or no public subsidy. It's also the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Empty Space, Brook's classic, hugely influential analysis of the problems confronting contemporary theatre. It's a powerful expression of the belief that it is performance, not a play text in the abstract, that is the essence of stage art.

My ignorance of plumbing left the two of us staring in silent wonder at the ineffable mystery of a boiler that boils away merrily but stubbornly fails to send hot water to the radiators. However, warmed by mugs of tea, we sat down to talk.

Brook says he's moved that so many gifted young directors regard The Empty Space as their bible "though I wrote it with no intention of it becoming that". Indeed, in his recently published autobiography Threads of Time he casually confesses that he assembled the book to fund a trip to Afghanistan. What pleased him most, he tells me, was that in the worst days of apartheid in South Africa, it penetrated through to the townships. "There were all these people dying to make theatre, but theatre buildings didn't exist. At the start of the book, I say that you can take any empty space and call it a bare stage; you don't need red curtains, spotlights and tip-up seats. To hear this from someone far away with all those supposed advantages - that was useful for them, which is my only criterion".

Moving theatre out of the theatre was what Brook did in a pioneering step in 1964 when, for his production of Genet's The Screens, he commandeered the Donmar - in those days an enormously tall, bare converted warehouse - to give him the freedom and space he needed for the amazing four-level action of the final scene. This, for Blanche Marvin, the bundle of crusading zeal who founded the Empty Space award, was a symbolic moment - the legitimising by a major figure of the nascent idea of a fringe. Hence Brook is the natural sponsor for an award that seeks to give fringe venues recognition and support.

Brook told me that, on this trip, he's been enormously impressed by Mick Gordon's production of Brian Friel's Volunteers, which spectacularly converts the tiny Gate Theatre into a boggy archaeological burrow. At the time of the last award ceremony, the Gate's existence was under threat, the London Arts Board having shamefully cut its grant. It's typical of the spirit of these occasions that Stephen Daldry chose not to talk about his own Royal Court, but to make an impassioned defence of the Gate, whose adventurous repertoire puts the National Theatre to shame, and that the Young Vic promptly donated its prize money to a "Save the Gate" fund. At such moments it does not seem fanciful to talk of a fringe movement.

One of Brook's future plans is to mount in London an English-speaking reworking of Qui est la - the wonderfully suggestive mosaic of moments from Hamlet and apercus on the nature of theatre acting and direction, unveiled in Paris in 1966. As a project for 2000, Qui est la appeals to Brook because "theatre direction is a kind of freak invention of our century, and I think it would carry something of value to offer a resume." What interests him is that, in reaction to the bankrupt pictorialism and practices of the previous era, "there was in the 20th century the sudden emergence of a handful of super-talented `visionaries' who had the energy that comes from entering a new continent."

The opposed techniques of two of those visionaries - the violent immediacy of Antonin Artaud, with his analogy of theatre to a police raid on a red- light district, and the cool, distancing scepticism of Brecht and his alienation effects - Brook famously rammed together in his 1964 production of Marat-Sade, the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play performed by the inmates of a lunatic asylum. With a pellucid playfulness and a seriousness that never lapses into solemnity, Qui est la applies the suggestions of a range of great theatre theorists to moments from Hamlet.

For example, the hero's shame that he cannot weep, whereas the thespian Player-King can turn on the tap at will, is illuminated by two divergent Russian accounts of producing stage tears. There's Stanislavsky and his "emotional memory" method (the memories that make you cry being often perversely trivial) and Meyerhold's "bio-mechanical" approach, typified by the saying "I see a bear; I'm afraid; I tremble. No, that's not it. I see a bear; I tremble; I'm afraid." (In other words, our bodies tip us off about our feelings). The aim, declares Brook, is to show that "the theories aren't absolute truths established for all time, but ideas to be used at strategic moments."

At one Empty Space ceremony, the actor making the introductions told the audience that "introducing Peter Brook is a bit like introducing the Queen" - a remark that met with loud mirth and became the basis for a well-sustained running gag. With his visit to the Queen in the offing, I was curious to know Brook's view of royalty. "As with everything," he argues, "rational logic doesn't touch the heart of it. Diana has been of enormous value in showing us the depths of the need to turn her into something she isn't. Every child, even today, responds directly to the fundamental symbolic language of a drawing of a person with a golden crown on his or her head." He's against either rationalising things to the point of destroying that need or, out of old-fashioned respect, venerating them on false grounds. In an impure world, the Royals are, like popes, bound to betray what they are supposed to represent. So are they tragic figures?

"I think it's a new version of tragedy," he laughed. "Tragic figures insulated by comfort from awareness of their own tragic nature."

Finally I suggested that one day some director may devise a Qui est la- like project in which, alongside the ideas of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Artaud et al, there are the reflections of Peter Brook. Which thought would he most like to see included? "Oh, the one at the end of The Empty Space where I say that truth in the theatre is always on the move, and that as you read this book, it is already becoming out of date - so take it with a pinch of salt."

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