Peter Brook picks up a tumbler of freshly squeezed orange juice from the table in front of him and revolves it in his hand. “I look at the glass of orange juice,” he says. “I listen very, very attentively . . . no sound emerges.”
Well, of course not, you might think. But while for most of us colours, sounds and sensations remain obstinately separate, for others the lines between them are porous. The great pioneering theatre director and I are discussing synaesthesia, the extraordinary neurological condition where the senses overlap: a sound, for example, might evoke a colour or taste. We agree that if you don’t have the condition, it is very hard to imagine. Which is precisely why Brook has made a theatre piece about it.
The Valley of Astonishment (which opens at London’s Young Vic next week) draws on the experiences of synaesthesia and attempts to communicate them using first-person testimony and stagecraft. Lighting, for instance, paints the stage in rapidly shifting colours to convey what one man hears when he listens to music. “We’re using the theatre to give life to a research that otherwise has no form or body,” Brook explains.
Not easy. But then all his life Brook has had an appetite for difficult theatrical terrain. Now 89, frail, but still cordial and spry in a black leather jacket and brightly coloured shirt, he meets me in an opulent Paris hotel. The place is full of handsomely furnished spaces but he chooses, characteristically, a quiet corridor where no one else is likely to settle.
Brook has always gone his own way. He blazed a trail through British theatre in the 1960s and 70s, experimenting with form and revolutionising theatre practice with his minimalist staging of Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970). His distillation of theatre to its basics in his 1968 book The Empty Space remains a guiding principle for many contemporary theatre makers. Its simple opening image of a person in an empty space has been the foundation of all Brook’s work in recent decades.
But he still felt constrained by the British theatre conventions of the time. In 1970 he left to travel the world, exploring theatre practices, and has never lived in Britain since. Settling in Paris, he created the International Centre for Theatre Research. He spent months, even years, developing pieces.
His eclectic methods and sage-like aura have produced intense reverence in some quarters and scepticism in others. They have also resulted in some outstanding pieces, one highlight being The Mahabharata (1985), an unforgettable nine-hour staging of the great Indian epic that sent fire licking across the sand and arrows raining over the stage to summon elemental battles. Typically, he responded to its success by changing tack and journeying inwards.
“When The Mahabharata was over, I was swamped with invitations,” he says. “To do Beowulf, to do the Icelandic myths, to do the German myths – all that. Because I was now the Specialist on Old Myth,” he chuckles.
“I said, ‘But I’m not in the myth business.’ People always do that: if I’ve done a play by Chekhov somebody says, ‘Ah your next Chekhov . . .’ And I say, ‘But I’m not doing another Chekhov. This is something for now.’
“So my question to myself and my close collaborators was: what could be a similar research into what human life is about, but from a different perspective and from present-day conditions? . . . We started this research into what the brain is.”
The Valley of Astonishment is the third in a sequence of plays about the mind, initially inspired by the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks. The first was 1993’s The Man Who . . ., based on Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The new show is also typical of Brook’s recent work in being spare, delicate and distilled.
Before our meeting, I watch the show in Les Bouffes du Nord, the beautiful, dilapidated theatre behind Paris’s Gare du Nord that the director made his home for more than 30 years. The piece is simple in structure, delivered (in English) by three actors and two musicians on a near-empty stage. It’s humane, intensely focused, but also surprisingly light, playing little games with the audience.
A packed crowd listens intently and several linger in the bar afterwards to discuss the show with the cast. Brook says this is common: the piece has touched a nerve with many. One woman recalled that her mother had always had a different coloured toothbrush for each day of the week – a routine that suddenly made sense.
“The people with this condition actually receive moments of their life more richly than we do,” Brook observes. “It’s a reminder to us all that whatever our experience at any moment, there is, in Shakespeare’s terms, ‘a world elsewhere’.”
He talks about one man who lost his proprioception – the inner sense of body position that enables us to co-ordinate movement – and yet learned, painstakingly, to control his limbs again by using his eyes.
“He came to see us when we were doing The Man Who . . . To everyone’s amazement, the door of the theatre opened and he strode in, sat down and crossed his legs. We thought someone would have to carry him in from the taxi. But he says he cannot for one second let go of this acute attentiveness with the eyes. Even today. If, for a moment, the lights go out, he has learnt how to let himself lean backwards against a wall because otherwise he would fall on the floor.
“And the thing that is so moving is that for him the great joy of Christmas day is that he is alone in his house and he sits on his chair and just lets himself go.” Brook demonstrates, letting himself go limp. “Because every moment for him is a marathon. Every moment.”
Brook stops, clearly moved. And this surely is the nub of the show: it is not designed to make audiences gawp at case histories, but to alert them to the out-of-the-ordinary capabilities of the mind. The piece encourages us to empathise with the characters but also to think about the perceptive tools we use to understand theatre. It’s about awareness in several senses: about what it means to be human.
There’s a click of heels on marble and we are joined by Marie-Hélène Estienne, Brook’s long-time French collaborator: a brisk though not unfriendly woman. She’s come to discuss her part in the play but also to keep Brook to his timetable (he is not a man for a short answer).
The two engage in a lively debate about the meaning of the word “compassion”. “I think you have to kill your judgment,” says Estienne. “Open yourself. When we worked on the play, the first thing that struck us was: ‘Who am I?’ Really.”
That undimmed curiosity about what makes us tick seems to be what keeps Brook making theatre after 70 years in the business. The simplicity of his style, once revolutionary, is less surprising now – some have found recent works repetitive or underpowered – but the urge to comprehend remains fresh. His latest book The Quality of Mercy, a collection of essays about Shakespeare, finishes by examining Prospero’s final speech from The Tempest, with its plea to be forgiven and “set free”. Tolerance, clemency, mindfulness – late in life these qualities preoccupy Brook.
“What we need more and more is to savour more fully any moment of life,” he says. “And I think the theatre can do this. My only aim in the theatre is that people, after the experience of one or two hours together, in some way leave more confident with life than when they came in.”
‘The Valley of Astonishment’, Young Vic, London June 20-July 12. youngvic.org