Peter Brook to hand over Paris’s Bouffes du Nord theatre
News that Peter Brook is to hand over the day-to-day running of his Parisian base, the Bouffes du Nord, in 2011 comes as something of a shock. Brook himself is an ageless 83 and will presumably go on directing. But the Bouffes has not just been his base since 1974. It has been an epicentre of theatrical activity from which numerous Brook productions, from the Mahabharata to the recent version of Beckett’s Fragments, have winged their way round the world.
I well remember my first visit to the Bouffes in the winter of 1974 to see Brook’s opening production of Timon of Athens. I was entranced by the space itself: an old theatre, built in 1876, that had staged everything from popular music-hall to Ibsen and that still retained its chipped, discoloured walls. Brook’s show had a magical simplicity and connected easily with the audience in the horseshoe-shaped auditorium. Returning from Paris on the Sunday morning, I picked up the papers to read about the financial travails confronting our own planned National Theatre. This led to me write a moralistic piece contrasting the beauty of the Bouffes with the extravagance of our own new temples of art, which cost millions just to maintain. Unfair perhaps. But Brook was certainly on to something: the realisation that you could create great theatre in rough, antique spaces.
In a way, that is the story of modern theatre: new wine in old bottles. Brecht’s radical Berliner Ensemble occupied a traditional Berlin theatre. Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop colonised a shabby old music hall in London’s Stratford East. Even the Royal Court, when George Devine took it over in 1956, was a run-down Victorian building. But Brook went further. He made no attempt to refurbish the Bouffes. He kept the building just as it was with walls, as he said, “flayed raw by time, weather and human destruction”. On the stage itself he also eschewed imported scenery. He simply used rugs to evoke the world of The Cherry Orchard, a sand-carpet for The Tempest or a series of monitors for the more clinical milieu of The Man Who, based on Oliver Sacks’s explorations of mental illness.
A space alone cannot create dynamic theatre. Brook’s work at the Bouffes was the product of his own relentlessly questing imagination. But the space and the director were a perfect fit. And what Brook did at the Bouffes was to strip theatre of its false accretions and get to the essence of a work. One of my favourite examples was his version of La Tragédie de Carmen. There was no gaudy Hispanic spectacle: simply a powerful dissection of the Bizet opera and an evocation of a gypsy world of fortune-telling and fatalism. At one point, however, Brook introduced the sound of a pre-recorded orchestra playing the Toreador song. When I asked Brook why he’d done this, he said “Well you know how it is – an audience always needs a shock two-thirds of the way through”. Classic proof that Brook has always been a pragmatist as well as a pathfinder.
It will be hard to imagine the Bouffes without Brook or Brook without the Bouffes. Over the last three-and-a-half decades, he has made the pilgrimage to this Parisian relic of a theatre one that every playgoer has to make. And if he has proved anything, it is that the magic of theatre is most likely to occur when past and present collide.