by Carol Rocamora
“And on the seventh day, God said: “There shall be theatre.”
So begins a work that represents the jewel in the crown of Peter Brook’s 76-year directing career. It’s the newest offering on his continuing lifelong journey around the world for the purpose of making theatre – a journey of discovery, he says, that will never be finished. Why? Because, as this 94-year-old world-renown director explains, theatre always exists in the present moment.
WHY?, appropriately, is the name of this current stop along Brook’s remarkable way. It’s a work he has created with Marie-Hélène Estienne, his long-time collaborator, now completing its engagement at the Theatre for a New Audience. It begins with a series of questions, posed by a trio of virtuoso actors on an empty stage (also the name of Brook’s landmark 1968 study). Posing as God’s angels, the trio (Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter, and Marcello Magni) asks: “Why do we do theatre? What is it for? What is it about? What is the role of theatre?”
It’s as if decades of Brook’s stunning artistic discoveries and brilliant theories are distilled into ninety spellbinding minutes (in addition to the scores of productions he’s directed, he’s written numerous definitive studies on the theatre including The Empty Space, There Are No Secrets, The Open Door, etc.). After the angels’ captivating introduction, the actors pose another question: “In what way is an actor unique?” Whereupon they launch into a series of entertaining études, before delving into a turbulent chapter of theatre history – namely, the life story of Vsevolod Meyerhold and his wife, brave pioneers in innovative Russian theatre who suffered violent deaths (1939, 1940) under the brutal Soviet regime. Here, the question “why?” is articulated by Meyerhold (played by all three actors): namely, “Why am I in prison?” Or, as the play asks: To what lengths do we suffer to create theatre? What sacrifices must we make in search of truth?
This rich, profound material is presented, as always, in Brook’s signature style – namely, clarity and simplicity, on an empty stage with three actors (dressed in black) whose harmonious ensemble work resounds like a fine-tuned string trio. (The inspired keyboard accompaniment is by Laurie Blundell). As always in Brook’s theatre, there are “ah” moments – such as the series of acting exercises in which the deep-voiced Kathryn Hunter, a long-time member of Brook’s company, kneels in prayer as Mary Magdalene, or Marcello Magni’s enchanting mime as a drunk trying to put a key into a keyhole. Then there’s the astonishing moment when the forced closing of Meyerhold’s theatre is represented by a violent tugging of an oriental rug out from under the actors’ feet. With surgical precision, Brook and Estienne penetrate to the heart of the matter.
“When we open a play, it’s never ready, ” said Brook in the post-performance discussion, which evolved naturally as if the play and audience were a part of a continuing conversation. A visionary artist who has had more influence on world theatre than any other director in our time, Brook treats every moment as an opportunity for epiphany – onstage and off. When asked by an audience member: “What has the theatre given you, Mr. Brook?” He replied: “My life.” When asked what is the essence of theatre? He replied: “To be human.”
WHY? poses challenging metaphysical questions that might ordinarily lead a play where angels fear to tread. But that has precisely been the life-long route of this celebrated director, who left the Royal Shakespeare Company and London fame in the 1960s to found an experimental theatre in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, where he directed scores of legendary productions with his multi-national, multi-lingual company, including the classics (Hamlet, The Tragedy of Carmen, The Cherry Orchard) and new work (The Conference of The Birds, The Man Who) among dozens of others. For decades he has circled the globe with his ensemble, collaborating with other cultures, creating remarkable works like the nine-hour Mahabarata (India) and The Ik (Africa), with frequent stops at BAM and TFANA.
WHY will continue to accompany Brook and Estienne, as they continue around the world – China, Italy, and Spain, are the next stops. Why? As Chekhov has said, an artist doesn’t answer questions, he only poses them.
WHY, written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, at Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, through October 6.