The death at the age of 97 of the great theatre director Peter Brook has been announced today, 3 July 2022. He burst on the theatre scene at the age of 20 in 1946, coming from the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to direct Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon. His production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970 changed Shakespeare onstage for ever.
There’ll be no shortage of tributes to him but here are a few links from The Shakespeare blog looking at different aspects of his work. Lots of links are included to talks, videos and websites and I haven’t had a chance to check if they still work so apologies if you find a link leads nowhere.
This one reports on a symposium I attended in 2015 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, attended by Brook himself.
Here is an examination of his 1955 production of Titus Andronicus starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, that proved that this bloodthirsty play was not unstageable, and was in fact worthy of its place in the repertoire.
The actor Alan Howard played Theseus and Oberon in Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This post looks at a collection of essays he wrote in 2013 at the age of 88.
In it he showed he never lost his admiration for the work of Shakespeare: “The uniqueness of Shakespeare is that while each production is obliged to find its own shapes and forms, the written words do not belong to the past. They are sources that can create and inhabit ever new forms… There is no limit to what we can find in Shakespeare”.
In 1970 I stage managed Peter Brooks famous white box A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A few years later I read David Selbourne’s book The Making of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was shocked at how curmudgeonly and sneery it was. I was there for the rehearsals every day and barely remember his being there and to my knowledge he certainly didn’t bother (or did he feel intimidated?) to speak to many in the company or me. I think he was either having a bad time in his personal life or jealous of Peter and his reputation. Where is he now?
For two months or more (we had extended rehearsal time) I watched a great director at work. It was one of the most exhilarating and joyful rehearsal periods I have ever experienced. This was not the case for everyone in the cast. I remember Mary Rutherford being driven to tears during a voice class with Cicely Berry. We worked in the debris strewn rehearsal space which was then the Theatre go Round base costume and prop. store. The rehearsal space had two further incarnations, first as a second performance space, The Place, and then a new building replaced it -The Other Place. It was so called because a performance space in London used by the RSC was called The Place.
The improvisations by the company using the debris around the edges of the room were playful, spellbinding, astounding, pornographic and very very funny. The space was on occasions used for ‘photo shoots. The “fairies” found a long cardboard tube that had held photographic backing paper. They hoisted Bottom (David Waller) onto big, burly, six foot “fairy” Hugh Keyes Burne’s shoulder then inserted the tube between Bottom’s legs. Then tennis balls (again purely happenstancely available) were rolled down the tube. They looked like drops of semen. Peter decided this was a step too far. The tube and balls were never used but Bottom remained on H K B’s shoulder who flexed his arm in an erection. After one setting and props-less performance of the play at Cannon Hill Park Peter’s five year old daughter commented afterwards that Bottom had his tail on the wrong side – the front not the back where donkeys really have their tales.
Hugh K B went to Australia later and was a fearsome Immortan Joe in George Millar’s Mad Max films. I wonder how many people, thrilling to the terror he is in those films, know he once played a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford! But then fairies can be very frightening too.
On another occasion the lovers in the Dream worked on an exercise where they broke up their dialogue by inserting “he said”, “he cried”, “she replied”, between the words. Christopher Gable came up with: “he ejaculated’. “Not yet he doesn’t!” quipped Peter. There is a relish of hilarity that usually lies hidden beneath Peter’s magisterial public presence.
Peter’s plan was that the magic should all be of a physical and dexterous nature hence the spinning plates and trapeze exercises. We had a trapeze hung from the support bars of the rehearsal room and took training in its use from the local circus troop. But David Kane, playing Puck, came in one day and demonstrated to Peter how he could make a wand jump up out of his hand by stretching an elastic band around the end of the wand. Trickery not magic! Peter’s response: “Shabby, shabby”!
We laughed so much in what was a joyous rehearsal time. On stage as the technical aspects dominated, the work was much more serious and focused on how to bring the flying magic safely to fruition. I remember after one alarming session with slipping trapezes and close calls, Peter sat us all in a circle on the stage for a discussion. He stated “This is only art”. I was shocked that he could say such a sacrilegious thing! I was so caught up in the creative process that I didn’t at first understand what he meant. However great the creative drive is, it not worth injuring or killing people for.
I became incredibly protective of our rehearsals and our production. So much so that as Robin Phillips’ production of Two Gents, which was to open before us, demanded more and more of the movement expert John Broom’s time I argued with stage management colleagues to stick to the original schedule of John’s time.
I have read an article about the rehearsals of the original production of the Dream by John Kane. It was published in a Sunday newspaper and gave a much more accurate account of the whole process and the electric atmosphere Peter created.
My time with Peter was as special as with Guthrie at the Bristol Old Vic, but now I was more experienced and in a responsible position. Being close along side him he told many stories. I had seen, in the West End at the Globe with the family, Ring Around the Moon – Jean Anouilh’s play adapted by Christopher Fry. The cast included Paul Schofield, Claire Bloom and Margaret Rutherford. Peter talked about it as his first West End show. He was in his early 20s. The night before he started rehearsal in the theatre he lay awake worrying about how he would get from the auditorium to the stage. Of course when he arrived in the morning there was a neat set of steps leading up over the pit to the stage.
He also spoke about directing Durrenmatt’s The Visit on Broadway with The Lunts in 1959. Lynne Fontaine and Alfred Lunt were the famous theatre couple of the age in America. In the play Lynne Fontaine played Claire Zachanassain who has come for vengeance. The object of her anger is Anton Schill who denied her paternity suit. Peter told that the famous couple were so at ease working together that Alfred, begging for his life from Claire, still lent on Lynne’s knee to get up from the couch.
At Peter Hall’s memorial day I got a chance to tell him what a thrill working with him on the Dream practically 50 years later had been. He smiled shook my hand and said: “I remember you”.