Monthly Archives: August 2014

Theatre’s oldest enfant terrible


Recently I saw an interview with Peter Brook as he publicised his latest book. For a man of almost 90, he both looked in good physical condition and spoke lucidly and engagingly.

When I first became interested in the theatre 40 years ago, Peter Brook was the king over the water. The Englishman who had made his reputation in classical theatre in the UK, and whose past productions were regularly referenced in any discussion on theatre I ever read or heard, but who had abandoned the theatre establishment here in favour of  running an unconventional theatre in Paris.

Around that same time was published John Heilpern’s book Conference of the Birds. It is an account of a trip made by Brook and a multi-national acting group through north-west Africa. Although a lot of the impact of the book comes from Heilpern’s own writing, it is first and foremost a story of Brook’s creative energy, innovation and leadership.

Brook  returned to prominence in the late 1980s  through his championing of a large new UK performance space, not in London but in Glasgow.  To the former transport depot which became the Tramway, he brought the only British performances of The Mahabharata and The Tragedy of Carmen. Both were filmed and  shown on  Channel 4 in those far-off glory days of adventurous programming.

My own belated experience of a Brook production was La Tempête, his version of The Tempest, at the Tramway in 1990. Given my long-time fascination with the director, fuelled by other writers’ descriptions, I do remember being a little underwhelmed with it. A few details which I recall include its multi-national cast (including one or two actors, such as Bruce Myers, whom I knew as colourful characters from  Conference of the Birds) and its stripped-down feel, similar to that captured again by Julie Taymor in her fine film.

Brook’s ideas and practice – which he freely admitted had been drawn from earlier figures like Artaud and Meyerhold –  made a big impression on me as I explored the art of the theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of his concerns in the book The Empty Space seem now a bit old-fashioned and his ideas to have been overtaken somewhat by cultural fashion. As a young man already involved in theatre, he was profoundly affected by some stark, stripped-down productions he saw in the mid-1940s, such as one of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in war-damaged Hamburg. By the late 1960s, when the lectures of The Empty Space were delivered, he had become horrified by familiar interpretations and expensive admission prices, especially on Broadway,  and thrilled by the long rehearsals and dedicated approach of the Berliner Ensemble. He believed that high art should draw on elements of popular culture, but not, perhaps surprisingly, that it should specifically seek to be “relevant” to draw a wider audience.

The best theatre often takes place outside conventional theatre spaces, he felt. One of my own most memorable experiences was certainly a production of As You Like It in a church hall in during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe of 1979, with the young cast moving and speaking just a few feet away from where I sat. Brook emphasised the value of placing together apparently discordant elements to create a fresh interpretation. That low-budget As You Like It used modern dress and sometimes even changed Shakespeare’s language to reflect this: Celia referred to Rosalind in her “dungarees” rather than in her ”doublet and hose”.

Modern trends for site-specific, “immersive” and outdoor theatre certainly follow some of Brook’s own explorations, although he did not anticipate that the art form would become as marginalised as it has been by the increased popularity of film, television and music.

One of Brook’s later productions which I had not known about was Hamlet, in 2000, starring the now-famous Adrian Lester, supported by some Brook stalwarts from the days of Conference of the Birds and The Mahabharata. It was televised (with the BBC as one of the partner producers, amazingly) and, like  The Mahabarata and The Tragedy of Carmen, is currently available on You Tube.  A rare opportunity now to assess the work of the director whom Kenneth Tynan once described, when Brook was already almost 50 years of age, as “the last authentic enfant terrible  of stagecraft that the English theatre has produced”.


References :

Heilpern, John (1979)   Conference of the Birds : the Story of Peter Brook in Africa   Harmondsworth : Penguin

Brook, Peter (1972)   The Empty Space   Harmondsworth : Penguin

Tynan, Kenneth (1984)   A View of the English Stage 1944-1963   London : Methuen



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Are the arts more or less inclusive than they used to be?


Mark Cousins made the most substantial high-brow  British TV documentary series in about 20 years in More4’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey.  In a period when almost every documentary programme puts its presenter at least in front of the camera, usually into the title of the programme and often within its content, Cousins stayed studiously and graciously off camera so that, during his programme’s mammoth 15 hours, its important subject might not be belittled. In other cinema programmes where he has appeared, he has come across to me as a man of warmth but also of quiet seriousness.

So I was rather surprised by his recent newspaper article where he appeared to be putting forward the rather reactionary idea that, in the UK,  most arts venues are  not sufficiently inclusive or welcoming. They are “too narrow, too defined by class…too culturally thin,” he said.  They are “mirthless” and “un-tactile”.

Cousins admits that he had some great teenage experiences of cinema and theatre and visual art but seems rather bitter that the places of cultural provision felt “foreign”.  Of course, many of us from his generation and older could say the same,  and at least Cousins lived in a big city where facilities were available. Many young people don’t.

Cousins does concede that improvements have been made and that now “most good arts venues have children’s programmes and outreach and inclusion policies, and they really want to involve the whole community.” However, I would make that point more strongly. I would assert that, during the last 30 years of my cultural life and certainly long before the internet era, every arts centre, theatre, independent cinema, art gallery and arts festival that I have ever known has been seeking to expand its audience by such devices as (for example) cheaper ticket prices, increased touring, performances and events in schools and workplaces and community centres, varying and widening the range of events which they put on, staging those events outdoors, opening cafés and restaurants and bars of all shapes and sizes, colourful newsletters and brochures, articles in local and national newspapers and magazines, billboard and media advertising.

Cousins wants arts venues to be “broader” and more “welcoming”, and he seems to feel that architecture is important, but does not clarify what would be the best type of building to achieve that.  Might it be a converted older church or school, which will usually have been better designed and built in the first place but might put off people who have unhappy childhood memories of such institutions?  Or a modern big shed, visually more plain, but at least with windows from floor to ceiling? Should it be beside water or surrounded by parkland or on a main street alongside the filling station or the supermarket?  Is it better to be small and cosy or big and impressive?  Cousins does not say. He exalts Edinburgh’s Summerhall as “one of the world’s great arts venues” but does not tell us if it is helped or hindered by being housed in a large Edwardian building.



The Summerhall arts centre in Edinburgh, with colourful sculpture outside.


Another example of good practice which he cites is equally unconvincing. The Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, USA,  is good because it has low admission prices. Surely nobody would disagree that that might encourage attendances?

“Forgive my generalisations and my bluntness,” says Cousins. However, as far as I can see, Cousins has no case because what he wants either has been achieved or is in the process of being achieved.   All arts organisations and venues and schools and parents work much harder than in previous generations  to encourage young people to find out about all genres of art and culture.  The one factor which slows progress, as ever, is money. Venues and festivals never have enough to organise as many events, performances or tours, and as cheaply, as they would wish.

For me, a more serious matter, as I’ve mentioned before, is how television is doing so much less to stimulate and satisfy cultural appetites than it once did. A young person finds fewer places to find out about theatre, film, literature or classical music than did Mark Cousins or I in the 1970s and 1980s.  




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Days of paranoia and conspiracy


Edge of Darkness, written by Troy Kennedy Martin and directed by  Martin Campbell , featured regularly on the “best of BBC2“ lists which filled newspaper and website spaces at the time of the channel’s 50th anniversary.

Has it been repeated on BBC4 just because it featured on those fan lists, seen to belong to a very particular past period of fear, paranoia and confrontation? Or because certain elements of the drama, such as big business’ ability to evade scrutiny and accountability, appear to have continued resonance into the present day?  It’s hard to say for sure.

The mid-1980s period of its original screening  was an era of political thrillers – The Ploughman’s Lunch, Defence of the RealmA Very British Coup – and I was a particular fan of this one,  partly because its cast included Bob Peck, John Woodvine and Ian McNeice  from the very different Nicholas Nickleby.

It would have been surprising if, after 30 years, it had retained all its earlier impact. One part  which certainly failed to hold my attention this time was the lengthy underground exploration of the Northmoor nuclear reprocessing plant by the two highly contrasting leading characters, the police officer Craven and the CIA agent Jedburgh.

On the other hand, I still enjoyed the appearances of Harcourt and Pendleton. Played by McNeice and Charles Kay as devious but wry, they are civil servants  whose departmental responsibilities are always unclear. In one scene, Harcourt comments that their operational funding comes from a combination of the Prime Minister’s office, the Commonwealth, the Arts Council and the Labour-run Greater London Council – presumably so that it is harder for anyone to identify the exact scope of their remit.  With the increase of  unelected staff within government during the last generation, you feel that there are still plenty more people like them walking around today’s corridors of power.

I had also remembered fondly Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as the CIA-approved femme fatale bodyguard, especially that moment when Peck’s Craven disturbs her in her sleeping bag on his floor, and the camera catches her, shoulders bare but gun clicked ready – an alluring image of danger and sexuality.

Joe Don Baker’s flamboyant Jedburgh, mixing a devotion to golf and Come Dancing with an hands-on involvement in areas of US foreign policy such as Nicaragua and El Salvador as well as in the nuclear arms and nuclear power industries, now definitely seems to belong to an era which will not soon come again. However, another character who would fit into any new 2014 drama was played by Hugh Fraser. At a time when we usually only see him as the dim-witted Hastings in Poirot, it was instructive to see him both longer haired and convincingly icy as a corporate executive.


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