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There were three people in this interview. Peter Brook, me and the invisible tannoy announcer at the Gare du Nord, just behind his legendary Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris.
Not the noises off you would expect when talking to someone in his seventh decade as a world-renowned director. But how appropriate for Brook’s creative HQ – recently modernised but preserving its hallmark shabbiness – to be slap bang in the middle of an international transport hub. He might be 81 but his passport doesn’t gather dust.
After 35 years in France, his free spirit still blazes. “I can work anywhere. When I was young, there was that romantic Paris-in-the-spring thing everyone goes through. Now when I go to London, I always think ‘I’ll never leave’ but three days later I want out, just as I did when the war ended. I have the same feeling in New York, Calcutta . . . the same challenge, fascination and interest wherever one is.”
Would he be tempted by modern France? He’s wary of getting boxed in, loathes generalisations even more than giving interviews. “There were two powerful factors which have changed. England was artistically insular – I went to Berlin, I knew Brecht, I saw the impossibility for the continental and Russian tradition to penetrate English theatre. Today, what was so powerful in England – closeness to roots, great documentary film tradition – is becoming more cosmopolitan.” The other pull was aesthetic. France’s “ancient, aristocratic tradition made beauty something noble, to be sought after. West End theatre had a tame middle-class angle on what was genteel and nice. Beauty became a very suspect value in Britain after the War – and right up to today!”
Fiercely independent, Brook has no regrets. “The French Culture Ministry supported our international work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at any period in England. The other side of terrifying French individualism” – we both wince – “is, in the arts, huge respect for the individual. In England, I couldn’t have started a national centre without a committee, governors.” His voice soars in a god-forbiddish way. “The Bouffes du Nord has never ever had a moment of interference. Each Minister has welcomed us. Mitterrand often came here . . . ” He pauses to level the playing field. “The bad side is sometimes an exaggerated respect for the artist. But once a line of work is respected, the individual is somebody to be left alone, not hemmed in with bureaucracy.”
The French have repaid his loyalty with admiration verging on reverence, compared to the more mixed reception in England of some of his recent work. But we’ve already moved on to global change, the world as a melting pot of contradictions.
“Everything covered by this barren word ‘the humanities’ is in jeopardy, countries spend more and more on arms and surveillance. John Osborne said to me that ‘in any period the cruel role of an artist is to go against whatever is the current’. Absolutely true. No general current can be considered the greatest moment of history. I don’t think the loyal subject who feels bound to the general current is truly on the right lines.”
So does he deliberately go against that current? He interrupts sternly. “You’re forcing me by listening sympathetically to say things which fundamentally I don’t like saying . . . theories, generalisations, it’s not the way things happen.” He doesn’t believe in the capacity to make decisions, only the effort to do so. “Call it instinct, intuition – physicists, mathematicians, we’re all the same. You struggle with the fear, then just as you’re getting off a bus” – he thumps the table hard – “all becomes clear.”
Yet recent work, renewing his visceral theatrical connection with Africa, has huge contemporary resonance. Take Tierno Bokar, about a village guru in colonial Mali drawn into a doctrinal dispute between religious factions over the meaning of 11 and 12. Or Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead, grounded in the horrors of apartheid, which opens in Paris this week after touring France. Or The Grand Inquisitor, which Brook sees as his most modern production, and which is pitiless about institutionalised religion forcing people to accept something which must come naturally.
Brook prefers to emphasise the universal dimension. “Tierno Bokar reaches back before Islam, to the origin of all religions, to animist Africa. Looking forward, of course we saw this in the air, 11-and-12 as the Sunni-Shia conflict, but the play is about going against intolerance, sacrificing one’s life for rigour. Obvious and overt parallels don’t help anything, though directors do it an enormous amount. I find that sort of modernity old-fashioned.”
He cites his favourite line from the poet Attar in The Conference of the Birds: ‘in the atom you can see the whole universe’. Not once but so often it should be his
He first saw Sizwe Banzi in 1971 “as just a flagrant injustice in South Africa where you needed a pass to move 15 miles. Now that’s multiplied at the global scale, from Afghanistan to the Channel, from Africa.” He admires Ariane Mnouchkine’s epic Le dernier caravanserail about identity and migration. “She took examples from all over the world, whereas Sizwe is very concentrated. Imagine dealing with it through abstractions . . . character A goes to B-land . . . ghastly!”
“To generalise” – he almost blushes – “for any work of theatre to touch you, it must have this permanently shifting balance, something so close to everyday life you immediately recognise it and something so far it opens a new horizon. All Shakespeare is based on this. Beckett found the solution by putting in details to anchor his plays.”
Brook should know, having just celebrated his friend’s centenary with a luminous earthy production of the little-known Fragments which gets more (clean) laughs out of carrots and toothbrushes than you’d think possible. He enthuses about the playwright’s joie de vivre, inseparable from his merciless honesty, and his appeal to young people “who haven’t been told Beckett’s difficult”.
Does youth feel far away when people talk about you like the gold standard (”x is the Peter Brook of his generation . . . ”) or slip into clichés about simplicity and wisdom? He hates the idea that he might intimidate others. “My way of doing something is inseparable to the chronology of all I’ve done. If a young director or actor says ‘ah I could do it this way’, they’re limiting their path. They have to say ‘that touches something in me, now let me find my own way’. Starting from a completely different point in their own lives.”
Brook thinks in cycles. “I’m convinced by what is written in the Mahabharata, the four Hindu yugas, that humanity goes rapidly to a high point, declines, Brahma goes to sleep and the world begins again. One must do one’s best because one has to live one’s time . . . but though you can’t go back to imitating 18th-century music or Rembrandt, you must have the humility to recognise that whatever one does is not as good. The visual arts are in incredible trouble because of the enormous money involved. A young person leaving a school of art, seeing that you can become a millionaire at 22 by having one idea no one else hasn’t thought of – that is not creative!”
He insists he’s not a pessimist. “Even if the cycle of history is going down, within any instant of time there is a possibility of going against it.” In this context computerisation fascinates him. “It creates relationships, forms and structures that will have an unbelievable influence. Sharing thought electronically across the planet is opening up something totally unpredictable.” It makes theatre as live event even more important. “We need a new word to talk about an ‘elite’ without privileged connotations. To say that within every mass of humans, one is opening up a small number who truly wish something of another order, to share and live an experience with other people. It’s right and honourable and healthy that a tiny number are searching for something.”
This unashamed appeal to intellectual and aesthetic rigour fits intriguingly with his passion for the universal dimension of theatre. What drives him now is finding new themes “that just need to come to the light . . . that could be useful, even to one person in the audience”. I left Citizen Brook at the still point of the turning world, putting on his denim jacket, beyond the laws
‘Sizwe Banzi est mort’, Bouffes du Nord, Paris. Tel +33 1 4607 3450