The Playgoer: The Brookmeister

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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Brookmeister

Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Nice profile in the Guardian this weekend of Peter Brook--who's at it again at 82 years old, with a new production of the 1972 Apartheid drama "Sizwe Banzi is Dead" by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona.

Here's an, uh, eye-popping quote from Brook's reminiscence of another 70s Kani-Ntshona performance, by the way:
"John Kani did the most extraordinary thing," Brook recalls. "When Winston got some imaginary dirt in an eye wound, John pulled out his cock, peed into his hand and cleaned his friend's eye. It was a moment of such tenderness and also such truth. There was no water in their prison yard, so how else could he do it? It was one of the greatest things I've ever seen in the theatre in terms of its relation between imagination and absolute truth."
While you can glean a lot of his biography from his several books, it's interesting to read again of his intriguingly mixed origins, and of the importance of film to his early theatrical development:

Brook was born in 1925, the second son of Ida and Simon Brook, whose Russian name Bryk had been anglicised by an immigration officer at Dover. He was sent to Westminster School, where he endured a certain amount of ribbing about his father's pharmaceutical company product: the laxative Brooklax. (Critics of a psychological bent noted that his experiences of this schoolboy cruelty didn't find true expression until his 1963 film version of Lord of the Flies.)

An interest in performance was apparent from the beginning. He staged a now-legendary one-boy puppet version of Hamlet for his family when he was seven, complete with a programme entitled "Hamlet: By William Shakespeare and Peter Brook". His biographer, Michael Kustow, recounted that after the performance he wanted to start again with a different version of the play, but was instead sent to bed by his grateful yet exhausted parents. By the time he was 16, in an early version of a gap year, he worked as an intern at the Crown Film Unit, which was producing wartime propaganda. It gave him a practical knowledge of scripting and production, and when he went up to Oxford in 1942 he was an instant college star. Kenneth Tynan, a contemporary, later wrote that "it was as if he'd come up by public request. Rather like a high-pressure executive arriving to take over a dying business." Brook's most famous college production was Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for which he recruited devil-worshipper Aleister Crowley to give advice on how to summon demons.

When he entered the professional theatre, he searched hard among the escapist and romantic fare on show to find "anything that might bring some unexpected jolt of real life and excitement. I actually preferred the cinema at the time because at least it moved." In order to find the theatre he envisaged, he soon realised he'd have to do it himself.

Yes, Brooklax. There's a joke for his detractors in there somewhere, but I won't go there.

Okay, the maestro's last, "Tierno Bokar", was a pretty flimsy excuse even for "minimalism," and I've feared that his work may be fading and fading into empty gestures in an empty space...but the man clearly still has the potential for stage magic still in him.

BTW, here's his "site officiel."

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