At the apogee of his impressive career, the illustrious director Peter Brook, along with his colleague Marie-Hélène Estienne, divests the theatre of artifice to ask an essential question: Why?
At the apogee of his impressive career, the illustrious man of the theatre Peter Brook continues to delve deeply into stagecraft. With his colleague Marie-Hélène Estienne, he questions the very foundations of the art form to which he has devoted his life. Like Prospero relinquishing his magic, he divests in uncompromising fashion all artifice to focus on the essential: Why theatre at all?
On an almost completely bare stage three exceptional actors dismantle the mechanics of theatre, revealing with incredible simplicity how their art is constructed. They then summon the heroic figure of the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold. A fervent early 20th century revolutionary deeply committed to the cause, he changed the concept of stage presence with a new form of theatre that was playful, radical and even dangerous, until Stalin, in the name of the revolution, had him executed. Why believe in the truth of theatre if it means your own death? Why?
Written and directed by Peter Brook + Marie-Hélène Estienne
Performed by Hayley Carmichael + Kathryn Hunter + Marcello Magni
Music Laurie Blundell
Lighting Design Philippe Vialatte
Images Gabrielle Lubtchansky
Costume Assistant Alice François
Coproduced by Theatre for a New Audience (New York) + Grotowski Institute (Wroclaw) + National Performing Arts Center – National Taichung Theater (Taiwan) + Centro Dramatico Nacional (Madrid) + Teatro Dimitri (Verscio) + Théâtre Firmin Gémier / La Piscine (Châtenay-Malabry)
Thanks to Oria Puppo
Presented with the support of Institut Français (Paris) + Service de coopération et d’action culturelle du Consulat général de France à Québec in association with Carrefour international de théâtre (Quebec City) + Monument-National
Written by Paul Lefebvre
Traduction Neil Kroetsch
Premiered at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, on June 19, 2019
Peter Brook (Paris) Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Born in London in 1925, Peter Brook is among those who revamped contemporary theatre by directing it towards its essential core, revealing the underlying depths of the texts and employing his exceptional mastery of the art of narration.
After a career in the grandiose theatre of London and New York, Brook moved to Paris in the early 1970s to focus on a simple, unadorned theatrical style nourished by the analytic rigour of Brecht, the shock tactics of Artaud and a Shakespearian sense of theatricality. In 1974 he established the Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT) in a magnificently decrepit theatre in the Bouffes du Nord area of Paris where, working with artists from diverse cultures, he created plays that increasingly zeroed in on the essence of storytelling. He presented Chekhov’s La cerisaie (1981), Le Mahabharata (his most ambitious and celebrated work, 1985) and Sizwe Banzi est mort (2006). He went on to produce with Marie-Hélène Estienne Fragments (five short Beckett texts, 2007), The Suit (2012) and Battlefield (2015, presented at Place des Arts in 2017). His 1968 essay The Empty Space, a cogent point of reference, continues to influence contemporary theatre creation.
Marie-Hélène Estienne (Paris) Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Born France in 1944, Marie-Hélène Estienne reported on culture for Le Nouvel Observateur when in 1974 Peter Brook asked her to work with him on Timon d’Athènes.
Three years later she joined CICT and quickly became an important Brooke collaborator, acting as assistant director on La conférence des oiseaux and La tragédie de Carmen (1981). Their collaboration continued with La tempête, Woza Albert! and La tragédie d’Hamlet (2000), and for the past dozen years she has co-created works with Peter Brook. Why? marks Brook’s third appearance at the FTA, after Oh les beaux jours in 1996 and Le costume in 2000.
How would you describe the work you do together?
Peter Brook: For me since I began, and for Marie-Hélène for a number of years, we have been exploring. We are seekers and travellers, like explorers who journey to a country where there are all sorts of things to discover.
They make their preparations and, once they arrive, they make sure they are not impeded by preconceived ideas as they continue to search, going further and further. In the evening they remark that the day was marvellous but long. They sleep and wake up the next day with renewed energy that allows them to question in greater depth their impressions of the day before.
Marie-Hélène and I never want to be moralistic, to set an example or deliver a political, social or spiritual message. For this question – Why? – there is no answer. Whatever the conclusion, we start all over again the next day.
What does the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) represent for you, and why have you placed him at the centre of Why?
P.B. :As soon as you leave the realm of conventional, realistic theatre, traces of Meyerhold are everywhere. Like his contemporaries Stanislavski and Artaud, he was deeply involved in a quest for what is true in life.
But also, like my avant-garde compatriot Gordon Craig, a man I knew, he wanted a “theatrical theatre” based on sharing with the audience the obvious, conscious conventions of the form. No question of turning theatre into a mysterious illusion. He dispensed with the curtain, showed the backstage area, the projectors. He developed a way for the actor to think and to articulate the work of the body – his biomechanical system. In fact, he viewed theatre as “a very dangerous weapon.”
Meyerhold was committed body and soul to the Russian revolution, but he ended up as one of its victims because his theatre, by its very form and structure, asked fundamental questions that could lead to a questioning of power. The play portrays that immense shadow looming over him and, like all those trapped in Stalin’s purges, he had a premonition of what might come. He and his wife resisted, trusting in the reason and honesty of the judges and those in power.
His wife was stabbed and mutilated in their apartment while he was being tortured in prison so that he would sign a false confession, before being executed in secret. It is what we call a tragedy. Marie-Hélène and I have long had the feeling that it was our responsibility to create a play about him so that his martyrdom – and that is the appropriate term – is not forgotten.
The show arrives at a timely moment.
Marie-Hélène Estienne: It took quite a long time. Our initial wish to write and stage this piece dates back some thirty years. That is also the art of theatre, doing things sometimes later than planned because the current context calls for just such a work. In so many countries at the moment, artists are subject to censure and imprisonment.
We performed in China, where it is forbidden to call communism into question. When the piece was translated for the surtitles, the text was modified somewhat. But as it was presented in English, we agreed because almost all theatregoers there speak English. Audience members were crying, thinking about young people who kill each other or are killed because of their ideas. By no means is the matter closed…
We work with very little money, we try to keep things simple and to take the time to experience together the material we are working on. We do not view the actor as a marionette, for the actor plays a capital role. The work is done together, based on Peter’s vision. The show is constantly evolving. The most important thing is that we never say or think There, we’ve got it!
P.B. : Gordon Craig was asked what his method was. He replied: “All I know is that, by a process of elimination, I know quite well what theatre cannot be, should not be.” That serves as our guide.
Marie-Hélène, the actors and I work in a real intimacy of understanding. We are one – one single, many-headed storyteller. I would add one small thing to conclude. The result or the form is not what we are looking for. On the contrary, we use forms, ideas and structures to arrive at the divine moment when suddenly, all by itself, the true form appears.
“Peter Brook can genuinely be called a living legend.”
Npr.org (United States), 06-10-2019
“It’s impossible to overstate Brook’s influence.”
Evening Standard (United Kingdom), 28-11-2019
“Peter Brook conjures magic out of thin air”
Financial Times (United Kingdom), 27-09-2019
“A new work from one of the indisputably great directors is partly a tribute to theatre and partly a warning about theatricality”
The New York Times (United States), 26-09-2019
“It is hard to think of another theater director whose body of work has been so singular in its multiplicity. […] Mr. Brook (…) found himself redefining what it meant to be a director.”
The New York Times (United States), 18-09-2019
“The three actors deploy their magic and give a lift to history, but tell a history about freedom of art and of expression that is hard to ignore in any period.”