When Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata came to Glasgow last April, it was the theatrical coup ofthe year. This month he returns with the British premiere of Carmen. Sarah Hemming went to talk to him in Paris. while (below) Carol Main found out how the specially-assembled orchestra will conduct
‘Picturesquely squalid‘ says The Rough Guide to Paris of the area around the Boulevard de la Chapellc. ‘A neighbourhood to be treated with caution‘.
Not quite the locale you might expect for the theatre ofone of the world‘s greatest directors. then. But this is where Peter Brook has made his theatrical home since the early Seventies. turning his back on the positions of power he could have held in British theatre. lndeed. until last year it seemed an almost unrealisable hope that he could be tempted back to Britain - then Glasgow found a home for The Mahabharata. one that Brook so liked that he‘s returning this year with La Tragedie (1e Carmen.
Visiting his theatre you can see why
he instantly warmed to Glasgow‘s Old Transport Museum. ‘Picturesque squalor‘ is perhaps a little unkind on the area — Brook‘s Bouffes du Nord Theatre is in a busy. unglitzy quarter of Paris. behind the Gare du Nord station. There is no pomp and circumstance about it — just a down-to-earth foyer and a warm. inviting cafe serving cheap. good food. and buzzing with actors and audience alike. The auditorium itselfwas once highly ornate. Now. left semi-decorated. it combines a wonderful sense of occasion and former glory with a workaday. lived-in feeling— not unlike the Old Transport Museum.
Brook‘s office is equally unextravagant. A sort of portakabin affair perched on top of the theatre. it is reached by a perilous set of outside stairs and a brief tussle with a reluctant door. Here. in the early evening. while the world clatters away in Saturday night fever below. Brook is trying to phone Brian (‘ox in Spain. The Spanish hotel receptionist seems less than helpful and the phone line is clearly unpredictable. It strikes me that the last thing he must want to do is an interview. But he turns and gives me an enormous Peter Brook beam. ‘How nice to see you.‘ he says.
This is one of the most remarkable things about Peter Brook. Though legendary throughout the theatre world. he is never condescending. Neither. at sixty-four. does he seem to lose faith in his commitment to a clear. accessible form of theatre —
themselves on stage.
nor his passion for theatre overall. Peter Hall once said he made all things seem possible: Hall‘s successor. Richard Eyre. wrote recently that whenever he lost his willpower. Peter Brook‘s example inspired him. Many directors say that when they lose sight of the reason they are involved in theatre. they re-read Brooks The Empty Space.
On a personal level he is inspiring. because he is one of those immensely intelligent people who generously assume intelligence in others. who seem genuinely interested in talking to you and seeing things from a different angle. Recently returned from taking The Cherry Orchard to Russia. he explains how delighted he was at the new dimension the production took on there: ‘It became fantastically contemporary. The basic theme of The Cherry Orchard is that at a moment ofchange one generation clings for better or worse to one way of life. and another generation comes and condemns their way of life as being nothing to do with present day realities. Everything about it is relevant to perestroika. where one class is clinging on — with less charm. but with the same intensity — to the old Stalinist way oflife. and another group is trying to sweep it away. The
. speeches in the play come up as
BROADENING THEIR SCOPE
In the pit lor Carmen, or whatever Peter Brook’s equivalent at the conventional placing oi the orchestra might be, will be the newly christened Scottish Chamber Opera Ensemble, orto use its neat acronym, Scope. Formed from 15 principal players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it would be wrong to say that the ensemble itself is new, the SCO’s flexibility in performing in all sorts of situations, shapes and sizes being one of its most valuable assets. ‘But', says SCO General Manager Ian Ritchie, ‘we wanted to give the ensemble a name and Carmen gives us a very good opportunity to declare it as Scope.’ The music they will play he describes as ‘A lean score, which is
almost contemporary — and it is really dynamite.‘
For Brook the acid test fora play. and for a production of a play. has always been whether it has this immediate effect. His work has often been called unconventional. but it has nearly always had to do with searching for the most direct. accessible communication and finding the clearest way of telling a story: ‘For me there is only one test which is: at the moment of performance whether you are convinced that this concerns you. I went to see Deborah Warner‘s production of Tile/(Ira. There I was absolutely thrilled. because I never like to see Greek tragedy — I never like any of the classical trappings — but she had made this marvelloust contemporary in a real sense. You were sitting there and there wasn’t a moment in it that was less close than a present day play. All the issues that people were passionately involved in seemed immediate.‘
This was also true of The Mahabharata. the Indian epic Brook brought to Glasgow last year. Told over nine hours. it was done with such immediacy and humour that it drew you in. really giving you the feeling of living through the experiences and understanding the learning process that was at the centre of the story. [.a Tragedie (1e
essentially a reworking of the Bizet music, but very much capturing the flavour oi the drama, getting closer to the pain and the more powerful elements, while taking away some of the romanticism.’ Rehearsals start as we go to press, so at the time of writing the musicians have not encountered, as Ian Ritchie puts it, ‘the pleasure or challenge of working with Peter Brook. Although the musicians are part of the production and in view, we don’t anticipate being expected to do anything more than play. Butthe orchestra’s experience overthe past few years has led to it being called on to do much more than that— acting, mime, dancing—so, iiwe are, well . . .’ At the risk of being taken for an advertising slogan, itcertainly sounds like Scope will cope.
5 The List 7 — 20 April 1%")
basically vulgar. a lot of fun and a big show. But when we sat down and really listened to it. we felt there were two levels of music. There was this marvellous. very spare music that could really understand the human heart. which was related to the four central characters. and the big show round it. So we felt there was a new version to be given. That's why we changed the name to The Tragedy of Carmen.‘
The story of (‘armen is fairly powerful in Bizet‘s opera — the tale of the wildly beautiful gypsy. Carmen.
and the desperate jealous tangle that
she creates. But the real thrust ofthe (‘armen story. as Brook sees it. is even stronger and more fundamental: ‘Like many stories. from Anthony and (‘leopatra onwards. it’s about two people of very different worlds. But. here. these are people from two fundamentally different ways of life: the gypsy and the soldier. There is Carmen. who. as a gypsy. cannot believe in any order or social structure. but feels she is part ofa