‘Everyone of us knows we deserve to be punished,’ says the frail old man before me in a hotel café. ‘You and I for instance. What have we done this morning that is good? What have we done to resist the ruination of our planet? Nothing. It is terrifying!’
Peter Brook fixes me with blue eyes which, while diminished by macular degeneration that means he can make me out only dimly, shine fiercely. But for the genteel surroundings and quilted gilet, he could be Gloucester or Lear on the heath, wildly ardent with insight.
‘Think of Prospero. He’s a bad character, hell-bent on revenge for his brother’s wrong, a colonialist who dominates Caliban and the rest of the island. Only when he sees love growing between Miranda and Ferdinand does he learn humility and tolerance. He knows he deserves to be punished. And if we are honest — you and I, everybody — then we can say with Prospero “Me too”. But we are not that honest.’
I’d asked the 94-year-old theatre director to explain to me, as we sit knee to knee in South Kensington, the puzzling final words of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. Prospero, his books drowned, his charms o’erthrown, addresses the audience:
“And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Brook seemed worth asking, since The Tempest howls through his life. It is 62 years since he directed John Gielgud as Prospero clad not in magician’s robes but half-naked, a hermit in hemp on a bare stage — Brook startling Stratford with his lifelong love of less. In 1990, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, his Parisian base since the 1970s, the walls flayed raw by time and the stage scattered with a carpet of sand, he conjured up theatrical magic again, stripping theatre bare to get to the play’s essence. And in his book on Shakespeare The Quality of Mercy, he reflects on the soliloquy.
What is Prospero on about, I ask Brook? ‘Oh, don’t put me on the spot!’ he wails. ‘I can’t tell you the meaning, all I can do is invite you to share the sense of wonder beyond words that those words open up. That is what theatre does.’
Yes, yes, but why should prayer assault mercy? Brook pauses for thought, then launches, as he does often in the next hour, into an unstoppable soliloquy of his own. ‘Mercy has become one of the hollow words politicians use to murder language. Shakespeare saw that. And there is no word more abused than the one with which he ends the play — free. Freedom is constantly invoked by politicians. Freedom from the European Union, from immigrants. Prospero’s prayer is a true prayer beyond such corrupted words.’
He places his hand lightly on mine. ‘You’re too young to remember how the Spanish Civil War enthused my generation.’ I concede the point. ‘Well, Louis MacNeice wrote of that war: “Freedom is more than a word, more than the base coinage of statesmen…” Once more, we are living in a basely coined political world.’
The words actually come from Cecil Day-Lewis’s poem ‘The Nabara’. No matter. Brook renews that theme of the debasement of language in his new book Playing By Ear: Reflections on Music and Sound, comparing Brexit with Shakespeare. Listen, he urges, to the difference between the music of ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ to the sound of Brexit. The latter ‘has the sound of excrement. It is sick-making’. Brook giggles when I quotes these words back to him. ‘If only our politicians had attended to the sound of that word we might not be in this mess.’
How does Brexit look from your apartment near the Bois de Boulogne? ‘The greatest political error of our time is Brexit. People were asked yes or no without any knowledge of the consequences. Not just the economic ones, for which they would need a year of higher education to make an informed decision, but the human ones of alienating our neighbours. Today we are led by politicians who have no political sense, but only ambition.’
You mean Trump and Johnson? ‘Not only them. They are pathetic individuals compared with Kennedy and Putin. Kennedy was rare among politicians for having been raised from the age of four or five every night to witness great statesmen at the dinner table. When he became interested in making politics his career, he had 15 years of learning what it is to be a statesman. All our leaders today start only with ambition.’
Eulogy to JFK is not surprising, but I never expected Brook to praise Putin. ‘Don’t underestimate him. I saw Putin being interviewed by French journalists who thought they had got him with some tough questions. He knew his history of 3rd-century Crimea better than them though. You could see that by the way he sat back, arms spread out in perfect ease while their questions became ash in their mouths.’
I look sidelong at Brook. It is 70 years since he and Salvador Dali’s Covent Garden production of Strauss’s Salome was booed off after six performances (the geometric headdresses and the green slime from John the Baptist’s head slavering over Salome affronted opera-goers of a more innocent age). Sixty-four years since he dared stage Shakespeare’s then taboo play Titus Andronicus with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, the latter as Lavinia, her tongue and hands cut off as the sinister musique concrète Brook created by stamping on a piano pedal throbbed through the auditorium. Forty-nine years since his last production as a British resident, the momentous, minimalist white-box staging in 1970 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with trapezes and spinning-plate flowers. Forty-five years since he directed a nine-hour production of Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata with a cast of 21 actors from 16 different countries.
Let’s go back further. It is 82 years since his great artistic epiphany. Aged 12, little Peter sat at the piano to play Mozart’s Sonata facile for his new teacher Vera Vinogradova. ‘I had already had boring lessons from impatient ladies,’ he recalls. But his new teacher was different. Across the decades, he remembers her advice: ‘As your fingers touch the note, listen to the sound your fingers have made and don’t allow any tensions in the shoulders, the arms, the fingers. You’ve done your job. Just let it flow.’ She also exhorted him to perform every piece he mastered for others. ‘The only reason for you to learn music is not for yourself. It is to share it with others.’
‘Everything I have done since grew from her lessons,’ says Brook now. ‘The sharing, the intensity, the insistence on flow, the departure from learning by rote. Even now I deplore actors and conductors who insist on rote performance.’
What would you have been if not an artist? ‘False question,’ he replies. Not really: I hardly expected him to join the family laxative business. His parents, Ida and Simon, were Jews from Latvia who settled in west London, where his father patented a popular medicine called Brooklax. Aged seven, their second son performed Hamlet for them, taking all the roles. At Oxford, he dreamed of becoming painter, composer, foreign correspondent and film-maker. He has excelled at the last, superbly adapting William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in 1963 and in 1979 Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men. He also wrote travel articles for the Observer for a while, satisfying something of his wanderlust to be beyond suburbia. ‘I always yearned to escape Chiswick,’ he tells me.
Brook is back in London to get his play Why? staged. Tough gig. ‘I’m 100 per cent British but the only place I can’t get it on is here,’ he complains. ‘It’s been all over the world — South America, the Middle East. It’s currently being well received in China. But here? I struggle.’
He is out of temper with this country’s theatre. ‘I realised that last year in Edinburgh.’ He had brought his production of The Prisoner to the festival, an austere piece co-written by Brook and longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne about a man who sits outside a prison wall in self-punishment after the murder of his father for having an incestuous relationship with his sister. ‘Theatre is an organic phenomenon through which the actors find the audience and vice versa. But there was no time allowed for that. I realised the festival just buys in plays from around the world, rather than nurturing them.’
In his still-influential 1968 statement of his theatrical credo, The Empty Space, Brook divided theatre into four types — deadly, holy, rough, immediate. By deadly he meant commercial theatre that delivers audience’s expectations night after unedifying night. ‘Edinburgh has, I think, become deadly.’ Each night, he thinks, should be a presentation of theatrical truth borne of actors’ near-mystical communion that, ideally, catalyses in audiences the wonder he detected in Prospero’s last speech.
To be fair, The Prisoner received poor reviews — one critic calling it a ‘philosophically provocative but dramatically inert drama’. This has long been the charge against Brook. Kenneth Tynan wrote in his diary: ‘How I wish Peter would stop tackling huge philosophical issues and return to the thing he can do better than any other English director — i.e. startling us with stage magic.’
Ever since, in the 1960s, Brook immersed himself in the writings of the Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff, who charged that we live in a hypnotic waking sleep, Brook has made theatre bent on awakening actors and audiences into higher states of consciousness.
Why?, for instance, meditates on the nature of theatre. In the first half, three performers ask God what theatre is for (spoiler alert: God doesn’t know). In the second, they explore the tragedy of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the great Soviet director who, like Brook, sought to create a new kind of theatre, but who fell from grace under Stalin. He was tortured and executed, his actress wife Zinaida stabbed 17 times and her eyes gouged out. How, the play asks, can true theatre survive in a world in which such gaudy theatres of cruelty exist? The New York Times critic wrote enthusiastically: ‘Taking the play in is like sipping a rarefied eau de vie, the kind that scalds as it cools.’
Unlike Prospero, who expected that on his return to Milan ‘every third thought shall be my grave’, Brook will not retire. ‘I’m working harder than ever, writing, directing, travelling.’ All this despite the death four years ago of his wife Natasha, whom he met and fell in love with aged 16. In Playing by Ear, Brook recalls reading War and Peace aged nine and finding the music of the name Natasha touched him mystically. ‘I knew at once this was the companion destiny had prepared for me.’
One last soliloquy. On the Eurostar, Brook fell into chatting with an elderly lady. ‘She was full of life and energy. She made me feel young. I asked her how old she was and she said 98. ‘Ninety-eight!’ he chuckles. ‘Ninety-four is nothing.’ His assistant, Nina Soufy, helps Brook to his feet and he hobbles off to lunch.