THEATRE / The ring of harmonies: All the world really is a stage for Peter Brook. Paris, India, Iran: if they have theatre, he's been there, and done it their way. In this essay from his new book, Brook taps the springs of global drama.

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The Independent Culture
THE GREATEST guiding principle I know of in my work, the one to which I always pay the most attention, is boredom. In the theatre, boredom, like the slyest of devils, can appear at any moment. The slightest thing and he jumps on you, he's waiting and he's voracious. He is always ready to slip invisibly into an action, a gesture or a sentence. Once you know this, all you need is to trust your own built-in capacity to be bored and use this as a reference, knowing that it is what you have in common with all the beings on earth. It's extraordinary; if during a rehearsal or an exercise I say to myself, 'If I'm bored, there must be a reason for it,' then, out of desperation, I have to look for the reason. So I give myself a jolt and out comes a new idea - which jolts the other person, who jolts me back. As soon as boredom appears, it is like a flashing red light.

Of course, each person has a different boredom quotient. What one must develop in oneself has nothing to do with restlessness or a poor attention span. The boredom I am speaking about is the sense of no longer being held riveted in the unfolding action.

At our Centre in Paris we have created a tradition which has become very important to us. About two-thirds of the way through the rehearsal period, we go and perform the work in progress, just as it is, unfinished, before audiences. Usually we go to a school and we play to an unprepared audience of children: in most cases they do not know the play and have not been told what to expect. We go without props, without costumes, without staging, improvising with whatever objects we can find in the 'empty space' that the classroom provides.

You cannot do this at the beginning of rehearsals, everyone is too frightened, closed and unprepared - which is quite natural - but once a good deal of real work has taken place, we are in a position to try out what we have discovered in order to see where we touch an interest in people other than ourselves, and where we merely provoke boredom. An audience made up of children is the best of critics; children have no preconceptions, they are interested immediately or instantly bored, and they either go along with the actors or they get impatient.

When you reach the eventual audience, the great barometer is silence. If you listen carefully you can learn everything about a performance from the degree of silence it creates. Sometimes an emotion ripples through the audience and the quality of the silence is transformed. A few seconds later and you can be in a different silence, and so on, passing from a moment of great intensity to a moment less intense, when the silence will inevitably weaken. Someone will cough, or fidget, and as boredom settles in, it will express itself through a person shifting his weight, so that the springs of his seat creak and the hinges squeak, or, worst of all, you hear a hand opening a programme.

So you must never pretend that what you are doing is automatically interesting, and never say to yourself that the audience is bad. It is true that there are sometimes very bad audiences, but you must rigorously refuse to say so, for the simple reason that you can never expect an audience to be good. There are only easy audiences and less easy ones, and our job is to make every audience good. When the audience is easy, it is a gift from heaven, but a difficult audience is not an enemy. On the contrary, an audience is by its very nature resistant, and we must always be looking for what can excite and transform its level of interest. This is the healthy basis of the commercial theatre, but the real challenge arises when the aim is not success, but the arousing of intimate meanings without trying to please at all costs.

In a proscenium theatre, when the rehearsals occur without any audience contact, the day the curtain rises for the first time there is no reason for there to be a pre-established contact between the audience and those on stage who are presenting the story. The show often begins at a certain pace, and the audience is not in the same tempo. When a play fails on its opening night, you can see that the actors have their rhythm, that each member of the audience has his own rhythm, and that all these disparate movements never harmonise with each other.

In village theatre, on the other hand, from the first drumbeat, the musicians, actors and audience share the same world. They are in unison. The first movement, the first gesture creates the link, and then all the development of the story takes place through a common rhythm. We have experienced this often, not only during our experiments in Africa, but also in community halls, gymnasiums and other spaces. It gives a clear impression of the relationship which must come about and on what the rhythmic structure of a show depends. Once you become aware of this principle, you understand more clearly why it is that a play in the round, or in any non-proscenium space where the audience surrounds the actors, often has a naturalness and a vitality quite different from what a frontal, picture-frame theatre can offer.

THE REASONS a play is put on are usually obscure. People say: 'It's because our taste, or our beliefs, or our cultural values demand that we put on this type of play.' But for what reason? If you don't ask that one question, then thousands of subsidiary reasons can appear: the director wants to show his conception of the play, there is an experiment in style to demonstrate, a political theory to illustrate . . .

Thousands of imaginable explanations, but secondary compared to the underlying issue: can the theme succeed in touching an essential preoccupation or need in the audience?

Political theatre, when not played to the already converted, often stumbles at this hurdle, but nothing illustrates it so clearly as when a traditional show is taken out of its context.

When I first went to Iran in 1970, I saw a very powerful form of theatre known as Ta'azieh. Our little group of friends had come a long way across Iran, by air to Mashhad, and then by taxi deep into the rolling, open countryside, off the one main road and down a muddy track to keep an improbable rendezvous with a theatre performance. Then suddenly we were outside a brown wall that circumscribed the village, where near a tree two hundred villagers made a circle. Standing and sitting in the scorching sun, they made a ring of humanity so complete that we five outsiders were totally absorbed into their unity. There were men and women in traditional dress, young men in jeans leaning on their bicycles, and children everywhere.

The villagers were in perfect expectation, because they knew down to the last detail what was to come, and we, knowing nothing, were a sort of perfect audience. All we had been told was that the Ta'azieh is the Islamic form of a mystery play, that there are many such plays, and that they deal with the martyrdom of the first 12 imams who followed the prophet. Although banned by the Shah for many years, they continued to be performed clandestinely in three or four hundred villages. The one we were about to see was called Hossein but we knew nothing about it: not only did the idea of an Islamic drama suggest nothing, but it even awoke a doubting corner of the mind to remind us that Arab countries have no traditional theatre because representation of the human form is forbidden by the Koran. We knew that even the walls of mosques were decorated with mosaics and calligraphies instead of the huge heads and searching eyes found in Christianity.

The musician sitting under the tree struck a rhythm insistently on his drum and a villager stepped into the circle. He was wearing his rubber boots and had a fine courageous air. Around his shoulders he carried a length of bright green cloth, the sacred colour, the colour of fertile land, which showed, so we were told, that he was a holy man. He began to sing a long melodic phrase made up of a very few notes in a pattern that repeated and repeated, with words that we could not follow but whose meaning became instantly clear through a sound that came from deep inside the singer. His emotion was in no way his own. It was as though we heard his father's voice, and his father's father's, and so on back. He stood there, legs apart, powerfully, totally convinced of his function, and he was the incarnation of that figure who for our theatre is always the most elusive one of all, the hero.

I had long doubted that heroes could be depicted: in our terms, the heroes, like all good characters, easily become pallid and sentimental, or wooden and ridiculous, and it is only as we go toward villainy that something interesting begins to appear. Even as I was saying this to myself, another character, this time with a red twist of cloth about him, entered the circle. The tension was immediate: the bad one had arrived. He did not sing, he had no right to melody, he just declaimed in a strong rasping tone, and then the drama was under way.

The story became clear: the imam was safe for the present but he had to travel farther. To do so, he would have to pass his enemies, who were preparing an ambush. As they snarled and shouted out their evil intentions, fear and dismay rippled through the spectators.

Of course, everyone knew that he would make the journey, and everyone knew he would be killed, but at first it seemed as though somehow today he could avoid his fate. His friends argued with him not to go. Two small boys singing in unison, his sons, came into the circle and begged him not to leave. The martyr knew the fate that awaited him. He looked at his sons, sang a few poignant words of farewell, clasped them to his chest and then strode away, big farmer's boots carrying him firmly across the ground. The boys stood watching him leave, their lips trembling. Suddenly they ran after him, throwing themselves at his feet. Again they repeated an entreaty in the same high musical phrase. Again he answered with his melody in farewell, again he clasped them, again he left them, again they hesitated, and then again they ran, even more intensely, to throw themselves once more at his feet, as again the same melody was repeated. Again and again, back and forth, the scene was repeated. By the sixth time, I became aware of a low murmur all around, and taking my eyes for a moment off the action, I saw lips trembling, hands and handkerchiefs stuck in mouths, faces wrought with paroxysms of grief. First the very old men and women, then the children and the young men on bicycles all sobbed freely.

Only our tiny group of foreigners remained dry-eyed, but we were so few that we could do no harm. The charge of energy was so powerful that we could not break the circuit, and so we were in a unique position as observers close to the heart of an event of an alien culture, without bringing to it any disturbance or distortion. The circle was operating according to certain very fundamental laws and a true phenomenon was occurring, that of 'theatrical representation'. An event from the distant past was in the process of being 're-presented', of becoming present; the past was happening here and now, the hero's decision was for now, his anguish was for now and the audience's tears were for this very moment. The past was not being described nor illustrated, time had been abolished. The village was participating directly and totally, here and now, in the real death of a real figure who had died some thousand years before. The story had been read to them many times, and described in words, but only the theatre could work this feat of making it part of a living experience.

This is possible when there is no attempt to pretend that any element be more than it is. Consequently there is no vain perfectionism. From a certain point of view, perfectionism can be seen to be homage and devotion man's attempt to worship an ideal that is linked to his pushing his craftsmanship and artistry to its limit. From another point of view, this can be seen as the fall of Icarus, who tried to fly above his station and reach the gods. In the Ta'azieh there is no attempt, theatrically speaking, to do anything too well: the acting does not demand characterisations that are too complete, detailed or realistic. If there is no attempt to embellish, there is in its place another criterion: the need to find the true inner echo. Clearly this cannot be an intellectual or consciously prepared attitude, but in the sound of the voices was the unmistakable ring of great tradition. The secret was clear. Behind this manifestation was a way of life, an existence that had religion as its root, all-present and all-penetrating. What in religion is so often an abstraction, a dogma or a belief became here the reality of the villagers' faith. The inner echo does not come from faith: faith arises within the inner echo.

A year later, when the Shah was trying to give the world a good liberal image of his country, it was decided to present the Ta'azieh to the world at the next Shiraz International Festival of the Arts. So naturally this first international Ta'azieh would have to be the best of all Ta'aziehs. Scouts were sent off around the country to pick out the finest elements. Eventually actors and musicians from widely scattered villages were rounded up and brought together in Tehran, measured and fitted by costumiers, drilled by a professional theatre director, coached by a conductor and then bundled off by motor coach to perform in Shiraz. Here, in the presence of the queen and 500 international festival guests in gala evening dress, totally indifferent to the sacred content, the villagers were put, for the first time in their lives, on a platform facing front, with spotlights blazing down on them through which they could dimly perceive a bank of society figures, and they were expected 'to do their stuff'. The rubber boots worn by the village shopkeeper, in which he had looked very smart, had been replaced by leather ones, the temporary props had been replaced with well-made ones, but no one had stopped to ask what 'stuff' they were expected to do. And why? And for whom? These questions were never put, because no one was interested in the answers. So the long trumpets hooted, the drums played, and it meant absolutely nothing.

The spectators, who had come to see a pretty piece of folklore, were delighted. They did not realise that they had been conned and that what they had seen was not a Ta'azieh. It was something quite ordinary, devoid of any real interest, which gave them nothing. They didn't see this because it was presented as 'culture', and at the end the officials smiled and everyone happily followed them towards the buffet.

The embourgeoisement of the show was total, but the most lugubrious and unwatchable aspect, the most 'deadly' was that audience. The whole tragedy of official cultural activities was epitomised in that one evening. It is not only a Persian problem, it is the same wherever well-meaning bodies try charitably, peering down from on top, to preserve a local culture and then share it with the rest of the world. It dramatises more than anything the most vital and least considered element of the theatre process: the audience. Because the meaning of Ta'azieh starts not with the audience at the performance, but with the way of life experienced by that audience. This way of life is permeated with a religion which teaches that Allah is everything and in everything. And this is the ground on which everyday existence rides, it pervades everything. So the daily prayers or the yearly play are only different forms of the same thing. Out of this essential unity can come a totally coherent and necessary theatre event. But the audience is the factor that makes the event alive. As we saw, it could absorb outsiders, provided they were in a tiny proportion to the mass of the audience. When the nature and motivation of the audience changed, the play lost all of its meaning.

The same phenomenon occurred in London during the Festival of India, with the Bengal Chauu. In India it is performed at night, with music, noises, extraordinary whistles, and the village children hold burning torches to light up the performance. All through the night the village is in an incredible state of excitement, the people jump around, there is a great acrobatic sequence where they leap over the screaming children, and so on. This time, however, the Chauu were performing at the Riverside Theatre, a good space, but it was at tea-time, before an audience of about 50 elderly ladies and gentlemen, subscribers to Anglo- Indian periodicals, who were interested in the East. They politely watched the performance. Although this time there had been no smartening-up, no director, and the actors were doing exactly the same thing as in their village, the spirit was no longer present, nothing was left but a show, a show with nothing to show.

This brings me to a choice which always remains open. If you want to touch the spectator strongly, and with his help open up a world that is linked to his world yet at the same time makes it richer, larger, more mysterious than the one which we see day to day, there are two methods.

The first consists in searching for beauty. A great part of Oriental theatre is based on this principle. For the imagination to be amazed, one searches in every element for the greatest beauty. Let us take for example the Kabuki in Japan, or the Kathakali in India: the attention given to the make-up, the perfection of the smallest prop is all for reasons that go beyond pure aestheticism. It's as if through the purity of detail, one were trying to go towards the sacred. Everything in the set, the music and the costumes is made to reflect another level of existence. The slightest gesture is studied to eliminate from it the banal and the vulgar.

The second method, which is diametrically opposed, starts from the notion that an actor possesses an extraordinary potential for creating a link between his own imagination and the imagination of the audience, with the result that a banal object can be transformed into a magical one. A great actress can make us believe that an ugly plastic water bottle held in her arms in a certain way is a beautiful child. You need an actor of high quality to bring about the alchemy where one part of the brain sees a bottle, and the other part of the brain, without contradiction, without tension, but with joy, sees the baby, the parent holding the child and the sacred nature of their relationship. This alchemy is possible if the object is so neutral and ordinary that it can reflect the image that the actor gives to it. It could be called an 'empty object'.

What our group from the International Centre has searched for over the years are ways of understanding which of these conditions corresponds best with what each subject demands. When we played Jarry's anarchic and satirical farce Ubu Roi, its form, even in our Paris theatre, came from a wild energy and free improvisations. We decided to tour through France in the least 'magical' of spaces, so we found ourselves in a series of school halls, gymnasiums, sports complexes, each uglier and more unwelcoming than the last. For the actors, the exciting task was momentarily to transform these uninviting places and make them glow with life, so the key to this work was 'roughness' - a seizing of crudeness with both hands. This suited one specific project but cannot be applied to all plays nor to all conditions. However, when a transformation takes place, impurity becomes the greatest glory of the theatre, beside which a pious search for purity seems woefully nave.

True questions are often found in paradox and are impossible to resolve. There is a balance to be found between that which tries to be pure and that which becomes pure through its relationship to the impure. You can thus see to what extent an idealistic theatre cannot exist as long as it attempts to be outside the rough texture of this world. The pure can only be expressed in theatre through something that in its nature is essentially impure. We must remember that theatre is made by people and executed by people through their only available instruments, human beings. So the form is in its very nature a mixture where pure and impure elements can meet. It is a mysterious marriage that is at the centre of legitimate experience, where private man and mythical man can be apprehended together within the same instant of time.

Peter Brook 1993. Extracted from 'There are No Secrets' (Methuen Drama, pounds 12.99, out now). 'Independent on Sunday' readers can buy copies post and packing free, at pounds 12.99 each, through Reed Book Services Ltd, PO Box 5, Rushden, Northants NN10 9YX. Tel: 0933 410511. Please quote reference 111502.

(Photographs omitted)