As mentioned in an earlier Leaf Collecting post, a big impact was made on me as a young theatre enthusiast by the book Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern. It describes a journey around 1972 made by the director Peter Brook and a multi-national acting group through the African countries of Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Benin and Mali.
As Heilpern summarises near the start of the book, “Eleven actors and Brook left for Africa and thirty actors returned. Everyone connected with the journey learned how to act, one way or another.” One of the most vivid sections is his brief biographies of the actors at the start, full of colourful detail as if they were characters out of a 19th century novel.
For example, Malik Bagayogo, from Mali. “Bagayogo seems to have a perfect physical build, as powerful as an athlete. Yet he was crippled down his left side as a child. He was kept away from school – he can still scarcely write – until his father took him to a healer in the village who miraculously cured him with herbs and leaves. The treatment took three years…When he was eleven years old, Bagayogo met a blind beggar, a singer who travelled from village to village. He became his guide. The beggar taught him everything he knew, songs and poems about ancient traditions, animals, sorcerers and devils… Sometimes he starts to sing a melody suddenly remembered from his childhood. The actors scramble to write it down before it’s lost for ever.”
And Andreas Katsulas, “the giant American-Greek….The son of a one-time gambler and bootlegger who was imprisoned for a year or two in Illinois…He’s emotional, forthright, explosive – unconcerned, he likes to say, with ‘the mystical shit’. He does a job. His father always said, ‘Work eight hours, play eight hours, sleep eight hours. Don’t do any more or less.’ So he doesn’t. His father also said never trust anyone, not even your mother. And he doesn’t do that either. Also, he watches every penny he spends, which gives him a reputation for meanness. Yet, when one of the actors needed quite a bit of money in a hurry, he was the only one who offered to lend it, counting out the notes in ones from a tin in a secret hiding-place…”
The Englishman Bruce Myers “(had) made history when he was expelled from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for being drunk onstage while playing Napoleon in Man of Destiny”, writes Heilpern. He continues, “Of all the actors who might have been in this group, Brook ended up choosing someone I’ve known all my life. ‘Don’t laugh’, Myers said to me when we were fourteen. ‘I’ve decided to become an actor’ … Myers was to get lost in the Sahara Desert. He could have died. He can be wild and frightened, just frightened of life, I suppose. And he can have moments of such calm and mastery, of wisdom almost, that your eyes would be opened. Before Africa, he took a leading role for a short time in Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was filling in for an actor who’d fallen ill, and he had only a few days to prepare the part. Brook told me that his first performance was one of the finest achievements he’d ever seen on the stage. Then (Myers) lost it…he found himself in a state of terror on stage…He went to the Lake District to teach sailing and climb mountains…”
Miriam Goldschmidt was “German, black, wide-eyed like a child, devious as a cat. She likes to drink, goes over the top from time to time, has a wild surrealist imagination, living close to the edge of craziness maybe. At twenty-five, she’s the youngest member of the group. More than anyone she has a real need for the world of make-believe. Her mother died when she was two. Her father, thought to have been born in Mali, died in a car crash. Her adopted parents both died in a car crash. Her third mother died of cancer, as did her first. Her boyfriend of nine years, an archaeologist, died in a car crash. One time, during an improvisation, Brook asked her to come on last. ‘I don’t want to come on last!’ she snapped. ‘It’s the story of my life…!’ People thought she was joking…”
Lou Zeldis was described as “tall as a windmill, vague as a giraffe. You would notice him in a crowd. He’s a striking bisexual, usually dressed in flowing robes as if taking part in a biblical epic. Perhaps he is. He lives very much in a world of his own, a world of fantasies and dreams, lived out with a little help from his friends. He’s been busted a couple of times…The second time, he was jailed for six months downtown Las Vegas: quite enjoyed it. Very little fazes him. He talks rarely. When Brook has a discussion, he often falls asleep. That is, unless he’s listening with his eyes closed…”
Michele Collison was “a small mountain, or a large hill, height 6 ft 1½ ins, weight 180 lbs before breakfast. Unless you’ve seen her blow her wages on a meal, you’ve missed one of the great theatrical happenings…”
Most of Brook’s group were not well-known at the time of the African trip, and scarcely better known now, 40 years later. However, one who was already established has become more famous as the decades have passed.
“Helen Mirren… a star maybe, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost. Violence is a part of her, part of the strange alchemy that goes into the making of a sex symbol…However she resolutely refuses to appear in the nude except for money… She’s famous for many fine leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company…and some massive publicity usually labelling her as ‘The Sex Queen of the RSC’. This can lead to tears, but you have the feeling she can’t resist playing up to it. It makes life easier sometimes. ‘Oh, don’t let’s talk about serious acting,’ she’s been known to say to earnest journalists, ‘let’s talk about my big tits.’ Part of her dilemma might have been that she couldn’t decide whether to be a straight actress or a great big sexy movie star. You can’t have both, apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer.”
Heilpern’s comments are particularly apposite since it is quite obvious that, in subsequent years, Mirren did manage to combine serious acting and sexy celebrity.
The primary long-term legacy of the enterprise was Brook’s dramatisation of the Indian epic poem The Mahabarata, first performed in 1985, given its UK premiere in Glasgow in 1988 and later adapted for television. Bruce Myers and Miriam Goldschmidt featured among its large cast, plus a third member of the African explorers, the Japanese Yoshi Oida. The film is on You Tube – high time to watch it again, I think – as is The Empty Space, a documentary by one Gerald Feil about the Brook group’s residency in New York shortly after the Africa trip.
Reference: Heilpern, John (1979) Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa Harmondsworth: Penguin