The West

A master of magic
Theatre and film director Peter Brook. Picture: Richard Bord/WireImage

od help one if one thinks of oneself in terms of a career or what one should be doing and how things should be developed," says 86-year-old English theatre director Peter Brook on the line from his home in France.

And yet, in retrospect at least, Brook's nearly 60-year career possesses a firm trajectory, an elegant arc that moves from discovery and experimentation (the so-called theatre of images) through dissatisfaction and iconoclasm (theatre of disturbance) to distillation and purification (the International Centre for Theatre Research at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, which he left in 2008).

Another shape: the greatest theatre director and theorist of our time kickstarts his career with exuberant productions of the plays of Shakespeare before finally turning, in his mid-80s, to a limpid, stripped-down version of perhaps that most Shakespearean of Mozart's operas, The Magic Flute, which is being staged this month in Perth.

Shakespearean in the sense of a riotous mix of the comic and the tragic, of the lowbrow and the highbrow and, in the music itself, an artistic promiscuity whereby disparate ideas are brought together to form new and surprising wholes.

Indeed, Shakespeare and Mozart could be included, along with iconoclastic theatre directors such as Antonin Artaud and Joan Littlewood, among Brook's artistic godparents.

"The one thing that they have in common is that neither of them moralised," Brook says of Shakespeare and Mozart. "Neither of them tried to thrust their own opinions and judgments into their work. They tried to bring human beings to life, so fully that you could be deeply touched by many contradictory characters and have your own humanity enriched in this way.

"My work has always been not to predict or impose a form but in working to discover form. Sometimes that leads to absolute nothingness, the empty space.

"But that means that within it you gradually find things that cannot be avoided."

Now you might be thinking: "Hey, what about all that Masonic stuff in The Magic Flute? Isn't that thrusting opinions and judgments into a work of art?"

According to Brook, that's just 19th century "excrescence".

"If you come back to the story that (Mozart's librettist) Schikaneder was writing, he and Mozart were part of a spiritual search, which they, in no way, wished to preach. There isn't one word where Mozart is explicitly trying to preach Masonic doctrine. That's another 19th century Germanic excrescence smeared on to the work."

Brook says Mozart was touched by his experience as a Mason but the music is not preaching any doctrine. "It just expresses the deep inner feeling of someone who is touched by something beyond the everyday, something which we can all recognise. It is a simple story, it's like the story of The Tempest, or Pericles, or The Winter's Tale which Shakespeare worked from."

Brook's career started with a bang and while it doesn't look like ending with a whimper, the minimalist quality that characterises his late style certainly seems far removed from the extravagances of his youth.

"I started with such a tremendous excitement and love of everything, which goes with being young," says Brook, who was born in London in 1925 and attended Westminster and Gresham's schools and Magdalen College, Oxford.

"I wanted to explore every form and go to every country and in every direction. So I made, with enormous exuberance, productions some of which weren't very simple but which joyfully experimented with all the staging possibilities. Because I don't think anyone has the right to judge anything unless one's tasted it all for one's self."

This is the period that included Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, a Watteau-inspired Love's Labour's Lost and becoming, at only 22 years of age, a director at the Royal Opera House - an association that was short-lived when his Dali-designed production of Richard Strauss' opera Salome caused an outrage.

It was also during this period that Brook explored modernist theatre, as well as popular forms such as musicals and TV dramas. "I worked in every sort of theatre, including popular theatre, West End theatre, television, all of that with no sense of right or wrong but to feel it from the inside. Then gradually, over the years, my interests started to crystallise and focus."

Thus the move away from conventional theatre and theatrical conventions towards a more complex, nuanced language that embraced different cultures, a new emphasis on actor and audience autonomy and the universality of shared myths and experience. Classic productions here include Weiss' Marat/Sade, a magical, circus-inspired Midsummer Night's Dream, a minimalist Carmen, a version of Attar's 12-century Sufic poem The Conference of the Birds and the nine-hour Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, which Brook brought to the Festival of Perth, as it was known then, in 1988.

Today, Brook says he has no interest in revisiting the crimes of his youth.

"What seemed to be exciting when I was 25 no longer is to me," he says. "People sometimes ask me to do something the same way I would have done it 30 years ago. That's just ridiculous. I'm not interested in big stage effects, moving scenery and all that. I've done it. The world's changed and I hope I have."

Of course, Brook has changed. But not in essentials - that same desire to embrace everything is still there.

However rather than manifesting itself in the complexity of the physical form, it survives in the ability of a production such as A Magic Flute (note: "A", not "The") to identify what is essential and universal in a work of art and to allow the audience to create its own worlds of infinity.

And if Brook does have any regrets in his long career, one seems uppermost.

"I'm very fond of Australia and have had many beautiful experiences there, especially in Perth. But I have a leg problem at the moment that prevents me travelling long distances. Otherwise I would be with you.

"I can say that with some regret."

"My work has always been not to predict or impose a form, but in working to discover form. Sometimes that leads to absolute nothingness, the empty space. But that means that within it you gradually find things that cannot be avoided." <div class="endnote">


The West Australian

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