When you think of the Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what springs to mind? Of course, an image of the famous white box set, perhaps with actors swinging on trapezes, Titania’s bower of blood-red feather boas, or Bottom in his string vest, oversize boots and ping-pong ball nose. The set, costumes and props are still instantly recognisable, all the work of designer Sally Jacobs who has died in August 2020. Unlike Peter Brook’s, her name is not particularly well known. He remembers their work as a fine collaboration and I would guess that although he provided much of the concept, the detail was hers. Together they created a series of visually-striking productions. These included, for the RSC, plays at the New Arts Theatre Club, the Theatre of Cruelty season, the Marat-Sade, and the anti-Vietnam play US at the Aldwych. In 1978 she designed Antony and Cleopatra with him. Her other work for the RSC during the 1960s was rather conventional, but her omission in Sally Beauman’s 1982 book The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades just goes to show how little designers, particularly women, have been regarded in the theatre.
It is now exactly 50 years since this, the most famous Shakespeare production of the twentieth century, had its press night. Up to that point the season had been good but not exciting. They could not have known how it would change on 27 August 1970, when instead of polite applause before the rush to the bar the audience gave a standing ovation at the interval. Another followed at the end. The following morning the newspapers, which had not always praised Peter Brook’s productions, were almost unanimous. This was a revolution in Shakespeare production, a genie that could not be put back in the bottle. It was significant that this happened in the rather old-fashioned town of Stratford-upon-Avon, rather than London. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was associated with the town: the fairies came from local folklore, the mechanicals were Warwickshire working men, the forest was inspired by local woods known by Shakespeare as a child. But now the cosy, familiar traditions had been swept away and instead of being a rural backwater, Stratford led the way, redefining the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as a place where radical experimentation could go on.
Not everybody welcomed it: Rosemary Say, writing in the Financial Times, was not smitten, but her description is clear: “Peter Brook ……. is more determined than ever to compel us to take a creative part in his production. This time we are to be bullied into getting our imaginations to work. His method, lively and inventive, just gets by – particularly when he allows Shakespeare to take some part in the proceedings from time to time. The stage is white-walled and empty. An iron gallery runs round the top where those members of the cast not immediately taking part stand to look down on the play in the manner of overseers supervising a factory floor. Two trapezes hang on black cords and a vast red plume is splashed across the back wall. The actors spill on the stage, a garish mixture dressed in King’s Road-type shirt and trousers, white silk cloaks and dresses of hard primary colours. Last come the artisans, a gang of workmen carrying planks, sandwiches and mugs of tea.’ It’s rather shocking to us today, isn’t it, to find that she resents the idea that the audience might be made to use their imaginations?
Peter Brook had set out his ideas about theatre in 1968 in his book The Empty Space: ‘It is up to us to capture [the audience’s] attention and compel its belief. To do so we must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin’. The bright white set that Sally Jacobs designed was the embodiment of these ideas. The reviewer in the Sunday Times understood that it was designed in order to stimulate the imaginations of the audience, rather than limiting them. He gave a list of possible interpretations that had occurred to him as he watched: ‘circus big top’, ‘squash court’, ‘polar bear pit at the zoo’, gymnasium, play-room – even the Elizabethan stage, with its tiring house-wall, two large upstage doors and gallery above and behind the stage.
There’s surely something in Peter Brook’s ideas for us today, trying to redefine what theatre means at a time when packing an audience into an auditorium is impossible. Again in The Empty Space Brook wrote “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. It’s the act, not the venue, that defines theatre. In his 1995 book The Quality of Mercy he wrote “The life of a play begins and ends in the moment of performance… No form nor interpretation is for ever. A form has to become fixed for a short time, then it has to go. As the world changes, there will and must be new and totally unpredictable Dreams.”
Let’s hope there will and must also be designers like Sally Jacobs, freelancers who can use their skills to lead audiences towards those new Dreams, and new forms of theatre.