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The Unique Vision of Peter Brook and Shakespeare’s Tempest Work-in-Progress at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris

February 23, 2020
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Peter Brook and his actors in a huddle after the show  Photo:  ©Brad Spurgeon

Peter Brook and his actors in a huddle after the show Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

PARIS – It took me decades, but I have finally attended a Peter Brook night at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. On Friday, I went to the last day of a three-day run of a work-in-progress by Brook and a handful of actors, at the theater that he has occupied since 1974, although he ceased running the place in 2008. Brook will turn 95 next month, so perhaps it was significant that the work-in-question was “The Tempest,” considered one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and one that is full of commentary on the very art of drama itself that both Shakespeare and Brook devoted themselves to. And what a pleasure and spellbinding moment it was to see and hear Brook himself.

The Bouffes du Nord was opened as a theater in the 1870s, and had a long history of trying to find its raison d’être, until Peter Brook took over the place and made it the seat of his International Centre for Theatre Research, which he founded in 1970, along with Micheline Rozan. Just sitting in and exploring the theater itself is a great experience – I had been only once before, for a Rickie Lee Jones concert – as it was refurbished by Brook years ago, but not redecorated. So the walls, seats, stage area, everything has a feeling of being lost and left in time to rot. (You can get a small taste of it from an opera scene in the 1980s film “Diva.”)

Peter Brook Sitting at the Bouffes du Nord Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Peter Brook Sitting at the Bouffes du Nord Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

The show was called “Shakespeare Resonance,” and consisted of a demonstration by a handful of actors of “research” that they had done on “The Tempest” over the last couple of weeks, under the impetus of Brook and his collaborating director, Marie-Hélène Estienne. Ultimately, it was about 1 hour and 10 or 20 minutes of excerpts of The Tempest woven together to make a play. I’ll get into that part of the evening in a moment, but for me the thrilling part of the evening was to see and hear Brook talk about the work before the show.

He came to the stage along with all the actors before the demonstration of work, and he was seated in a chair, with his actors at his side, and he took a microphone and spoke to the audience about his vision of the theater, and this work itself. Notably, he spoke of the resonances between the actors on stage and the public watching a show. And he immediately asked one of the actors – Marcello Magni – to involve the audience in one of the exercises that Brook caught him doing backstage to warm up the other actors. It was about finding those resonances with our hands and whole body.

Bouffes before the Brook show  Photo:  ©Brad Spurgeon

Bouffes before the Brook show Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Ornella and I arrived about 20 minutes before the show was set to begin at 19:00 and already by then we had a highly reduced choice of seats to sit in, having to settle for the first floor balcony. It turned out to be a great place to sit as we had a full view of the stage area, but most importantly, our seats were very close to the loudspeaker that projected Brook’s somewhat weakened voice through the mic.

Other than that, Brook was wonderfully in possession of all of his intellectual brilliance and passion for the theater, clearly. So it was the treat of a lifetime to have finally gone and witnessed this moment of a colossus of world theater.

As to his – and Estienne’s – directing what was most extraordinary was the choice of the actors and the reasons behind that choice; and, of course, the stage actions were captivating throughout – especially the use of some basic props, such as the filthy, heavy-looking carpet that Caliban rolled himself up in.

Magni, who comes from Bergamo, in Italy, but has lived and worked in Britain for 40 years, played Ariel, and was clearly the doyen of the actors. I never pictured Ariel as a grey-haired man of something like my age! But, of course, it worked well, as Magni brought the character to life and the poetry did its work. The other actors included Hiran Abeysekera, playing both Caliban and Ferdinand, Maïa Jemmett, playing Miranda, and Ery Nzaramba as Prospero, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan of India.

What was really wonderful to behold was the huge disparity of origins of the actors. Prospero, or Nzaramba, is of black-African origin, although he has grown up in British theater, training in Birmingham, and having worked with Brook before. The delightful Abeysekara is from Sri Lanka, and after winning praises in his own country went to Britain and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has worked extensively in British theater.

Brook actors taking a bow  Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Brook actors taking a bow Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

His were among the most fun performances to watch, especially when he rapidly climbed up a supporting pillar – or pipe – that runs up the side of the base of the proscenium arch, giving a different level to the stage area. We saw him briefly after the show and Ornella asked if that moment had been planned from the beginning or something that was incorporated into the piece through improvisation. He said that he had climbed up the pole once outside the creation and Estienne asked him to do it as part of the show.

Maïa Jemmett, who played Miranda, is only 17, but she has already played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Theatre National de Nice, where her mother, Irina Brook, the daughter of Peter Brook, was the director until last year from 2013. Maïa’s father is Dan Jemmett, also a British theater director based in France … and his parents were both actors as well.

But this very aspect of a wide variety of nationalities among the actors was precisely at the center of Brook’s relationship with The Tempest. The first time he had directed it was in a Stratford production, and he was disappointed with it. The problem for him, was that he found that working with actors of the western temperament and background was limiting for a play in which there is a magic, spiritual, ritual side.

So in his next production, in Paris in 1968, he used actors from around the world.

“I found it interesting to take scenes from the play as a base and to see how we could rediscover it together,” he writes in French in a simple program for the show last week, that I translate here. “The result went beyond our expectations.”

“In Shakespeare’s era, in the Elizabethan world, the links with the natural world had not yet been broken, ad ancient beliefs were still present and the sense of marvels was very much alive,” he says. “Western actors have all that is needed to explore in the works of Shakespeare that which concerns anger, power, sexuality and introspection. But when it comes to touching the world of the invisible, things become difficult and everything gets blocked up. In so-called “traditional” cultures the images of the gods, of witchcraft, are natural.”

This is clearly the approach he took again, and I left the evening feeling as if I HAD seen “The Tempest” with another eye.

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