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Peter Brook’s death like the end of an era

Performing Shakespeare under a circus tent with a trapeze artiste swinging wildly in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was his much celebrated production, making him the new creative voice in British theatre…writes Neelam Mansingh

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across the empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged,” wrote Peter Brook famously in his book ‘Empty Space’. A book that most theatre directors and actors hold close to their heart.

This book has single handedly played a huge role in shaping attitudes, approaches, concepts, vocabularies and in making the ‘invisible visible’, cutting across physical boundaries and cultural references.

A lighthouse of profound ideas, he shared with us, a new way of looking at text, space and body. Stripping it of the superficial, the extraneous and getting to the bone of the matter. “He is,” said Sir Barry Jackson, the producer for whom Brook first worked, “the youngest earthquake I know.” His actors talk about needing an oxygen tent after his rehearsals.

He has been described in various ways, one adjective contradicting the other, but all equally valid. From being called a madman to a genius, an abrasive intellectual to an extraordinary showman, myths circulate around him, crystalised and made epic, by his extraordinary talent and his constant desire for change.

His life is as fascinating as his work. Born in London in 1925, the son of a Russian emigrant chemist, his parents were penniless when they arrived in England, until his father invented Brooklax, a laxative. Due to the success of this pill the family became well-ensconced financially, leaving their penury-ridden existence behind.

Aware of his Russian ancestry, most people refused to accept Brook as a Russian surname, and were convinced that he was hiding his parentage. Many incidents of Brook leaving lucrative job offers due to an argument about his name, becoming a subject of inquiry and distrust, are part of the folklore that followed Brook.

Performing Shakespeare under a circus tent with a trapeze artiste swinging wildly in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was his much celebrated production, making him the new creative voice in British theatre.

Despite success, accolades and huge grants, he ran away from British Theatre and spent the next five decades of his career in Paris, working on a project that could be termed idiosyncratic. His project, ‘Conference of the Birds’, compiled in a book, shared experiences of taking his actors from the cocoon of living in Paris to the tumult, heat and dust of traversing a difficult and alien landscape in Africa.

His international group of actors were made to take this journey in an attempt to search for a new language of sound. To figure out if actors from different cultures and backgrounds could transcend the clogged urbanisation of city living and, through encounters and confrontations, bring a richer perception and quality to their lives.

I met Peter Brook in Bhopal at Bharat Bhavan in 1981, when he was touring India to identify actors, forms, images, colours and smells that could be fed into his production, based on the ‘Mahabharata’. Through this production, Brook sought to achieve universality and comprehensibility through images and gestures, stating that the ‘Mahabharata’ did not belong to one country or race but to humanity.

A workshop was organised at Bharat Bhavan, which included an overwhelming list of celebrated directors, local actors, dancers, musicians and observers. I was supposed to manage the logistics of the workshop and see to Brook’s comfort and well-being. What I noticed was a watchful man, with a gnomish appearance, short and stocky, dressed in lose denims, but the energy that flowed were like tiny bomb explosions.

An exercise was given, in which the directors, including Brook, had to choreograph the opening scene from Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntalam’ — the first meeting of Dushyanta, the king, and the maiden Shakuntala.

Brook’s wife, the brilliant actress Natasha Parry, played Shakuntala without carrying the cultural baggage, memory or references to the character. Escaping the cliched performance templates that existed for characterising classical characters, Brook made us see through Parry’s Shakuntala a fresh avatar of the classical heroine.

Utterly alive, an animated being, a voluptuous spring of sexuality that one may never have associated with the image of Shakuntala, as we knew her from our Sanskrit theatre classes! His chapter on Deadly Theatre was understood practically!

During that visit, I was supposed to buy him a gift as a way of thanking him. But I had read that Peter Brook possesses three shirts, one suit and two pairs of jeans. His home has minimal furniture and no artifacts. A rootless man, actually nomadic is how he has been described. It was truly a dilemma to locate a gift for the spartan Brook!

He made the impossible possible by staging a nine-hour-long performance of the ‘Mahabharata’ in a stone quarry framed against a forest on the outskirts of Avignon.

Starting at sunset and ending with the sunrise was magical, where the two warring families with their arches taunt and a giant wheel rolling across the stage shows the great battle with cosmic grandeur. A clash of two great dynasties, locked in a moral fight of ideal heroes representing divine forces arrayed against demonic energies, creating a production of monumental dimension. This was in 1985.

Peter Brook’s death is like the end of an era, the loss of a revered figure. A formidable creative giant, a theorist, and definitely an anarchist, who tore into established ways of working by introducing something fresh, novel and experimental. He believed very deeply in the transformative power of theatre and his legacy will live on.

What one could only dream about was actualised by Brook, not one to be intimidated by the scale and vision of his own inspiration. It was the gift that he bequeathed to the world of theatre. Take risks, jump the cliff, let your vision swirl in a vertiginous precipice!

ALSO READ-Draupadi recalls her days with the Master

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Draupadi recalls her days with the Master

I met him last in 2018 and accompanied him to see his latest work. He looked the same as he always had, with eyes that went from cold to twinkling…writes Mallika Sarabhai

“Don’t raise your voice Maleeka. You sound like a shrew”.

“There are no shrews in our mythology Peter. Only Shaktis”.

That early conversation, a couple of weeks into rehearsals in October 1984, pretty much set the tone for my early relationship with director Peter Brook.

I was an innocent, lost in an alien professional theatre world, working in a language that I did not speak.

A new mother clutching a five week old baby. Trying to set up home in France’s coldest winter in a century. And confronting a theatre director who seemed to need and want me, but also resented the fact that I was an educated and rather well read argumentative Indian.

April 1984. I had been following the journey of Peter Brook and his entourage across India, in search for a Draupadi or a Krishna for their epic production of The Mahabharata. I was pregnant, and skinny and yellow with jaundice.

One morning I received a telegramme from the French Cultural Attache; “Are you in Ahmedabad? Peter Brook will fly there to meet you tomorrow.” Me?

He arrived the next morning, with Marie Helene Estienne, his assistant; Jean Claude Carriere, the amazing writer; Chloe Obelansky the designer of the show, and her assistant Pippa.

I was dressed in a deep green dress, setting off my yellowness to advantage, my knee length hair, loose. We made small talk in my sitting room. And then he popped the question — would I audition for Draupadi?

Ever since I remember, I have thought Draupadi the only woman in mythology worth her salt. Over the years I had read dozens of versions of the Mahab. And I was being offered the part in this much touted production.

Exhilarated, I also panicked. I had just started a publishing company. I was going to give birth. I had organized the largest ever folk festival with 200 dancers from 7 countries. How could I leave?

“Can you fly to Paris this week?” No, no I was leaving for New York. “That is alright. My assistant Jean Paul is looking after our production of Carmen at Lincoln Center. Your first audition can be there.”

Fast forward. There I was. The script sent to me to try and learn the French from the Director of Alliance Francaise, my dear friend Achille Forler, was not the actual script at all. It was all to be improvised. What? And I had been memorizing it for months.

With the many accents of French all around me, from Japanese to Senegalese, Peter, with his still very British French, was about the only person I understood. But I was with a group who worshipped him as a guru. And I don’t like gurus. I didn’t want one.

I argued in English — about the interpretation of characters, about Shaktis and shrews, about his not wanting to seem blood thirsty (“Peter you should have chosen the Ramayana”), about the interpretation of the woman (he was very Anglo Saxon), about nuances.

He made it clear soon enough that he preferred me to discuss scenes and my interpretations of characters, in the privacy of his room, so that once convinced, he could present it to the others. He could not understand why, after a 14-hour rehearsal, I wanted not to sit around listening to gyan.

Once he said to me that working with me was like working with Princess Margaret (“I didn’t know you had worked with her, Peter”).

Many times I wanted to run away. I hated it. I didn’t want to work with angst and tension.

Here was a director telling us that we can never become the character, we can only interpret them, that we can only be story telling heads. Here was a man who used the navarasa as an exercise — play the scene as a comedy, now play it with disgust; Mallika do the entire scene is gibberish; now you play Yudhishthira.

He made me do Noh play voice exercises with the amazing actor Yoshi Oida, as, unlike in Indian films where I was found to have too masculine a voice, he needed my voice deepened as a tragedienne!

I spent hours and days grunting and singing in a bended knee position, while Yoshi asked me to bring the voice up from the anus and look at the clouds. He taught me how a character was like an onion, to be peeled till you came to the soul, the emptiness, the shunya. He was cold, and ruthless. And he made me the artist I am.

We become close friends later, once the play was a success and I was being commended. On the many occasions when we shared a stage for press conferences at the release of the film and TV productions, he would grin and tell the audience: “And now Mallika will tell you how awful it is to work with me.”

I met him last in 2018 and accompanied him to see his latest work. He looked the same as he always had, with eyes that went from cold to twinkling.

Thank you Peter. The five years spent with you and Draupadi made me the artiste I am. Someone who can hold her own, and who can weave stories that disturb and push one to think.

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