Peter Brook’s productions of Fragments, a quintet of Beckett one-acts, and The Grand Inquisitor, drawn from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, arrived at ArtsEmerson the week of March 21 for a two-week run to much fanfare. It marked the first time in forty years that a Brook production had played Boston. In 1971, his history-making idiosyncratic and theatricalist A Midsummer Night’s Dream (produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company) had astounded audiences and critics here.
Brook the director is difficult to pinpoint; his most defining characteristic is experimentalism. Since 1970, he has been based in Paris where his subsidized Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CITC), allows him the freedom to explore without commercial considerations. His repertoire is broad; his style varies. Brook’s 1982 minimalist Carmen, set in a sand pit, was followed three years later by his epic nine-hour Mahabharata. However, with the passing of time, the eighty-six year old Brook has become more interested in distilling, investigating, and baring a play’s essence through his concept of the moment. 1995 saw his exploration of the rehearsal process in a stripped-down adaptation of Hamlet (Qui est là?) directed in the styles of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, and Brecht. In 2002, he revisited the play (The Tragedy of Hamlet) this time reordering scenes and cutting characters to explore the meaning of what a classical play is. In 2004, he returned to the Mahabharata legend with La Mort de Krishna, a segment of the longer story in a simply staged version.
Although director and author would appear to be a perfect fit, this is just Brook’s second essay into Beckett; the first was Oh les beaux jours (Happy Days) in 1995. According to Brook, he was searching for the joy and humor in Beckett, who, he claims, has often been misinterpreted as “pessimistic” and “despairing.” Yet of the five plays, only the third – Acts Without Words II, which dates from the late 1950s – and the fifth – Come and Go, published in French as Va et vient in 1966 – display much humor.
The set literalizes the stripping away concept. At the opening, several props sit on a bare stage. Two black boxes are down center, one holding a staff, the other a violin. Upstage center are two indeterminate white shapes – similar to rock formations – bathed in a pink light, which soon changes. A straight back armless chair is placed up left. Further up center is a backless bench. Each play uses at least one prop, which is removed at its end. For the fifth play, only the bench remains.
The evening opens with the bitter and nihilistic Rough for Theatre 1 (also a product of the late 1950s) which would appear to invalidate Brook’s contention about Beckett’s humor. Rough for Theatre recalls Beckett’s longer Endgame (1957) with its disabled characters, cruelty, symbiotic relationships, and flashes of black comedy. As in Endgame, the characters appear to be the last people on earth. As always in Beckett, the past is nebulous.
Long-time Brook actors at CITC, Bruce Myers and Yoshi Oïda join each other onstage respectively as the one-legged man and the blind violinist. Strangers to each other, they cooperate for a brief time, even showing tenderness. The amputee acts as the blind man’s eyes, the violinist as the amputee’s legs, pushing him along on his wheeled box. “Why don’t you let yourself die?” the amputee asks. “Because I am not more unhappy” is the response. Anger surfaces, the relationship deteriorates, and the play closes, apparently on the verge of violence, with the violinist threatening the amputee with his own staff. Myers and Oïda’s highly tuned and close-knit performances give evidence of their long association.
Rockaby, Beckett’s dramatic prose poem, approximately twelve minutes in length, is beautiful acted by Hayley Carmichael in Brook’s untraditional staging. As written by Beckett and defined by Billie Whitelaw who originated the role, the sole character, the ancient W, sits in a rocker, mechanically rocked, while the actress’s recorded voice plays, accompanied on occasion by the living performer. The voice recounts details of W and her dead mother’s life, although the two meld together.
Gone are the ancient crone, recorded voice, stylized sequined long-sleeved black gown, headdress, and rocker. In their place is a more realistic, contemporary W, middle-aged, middle-class, wearing a simple black dress and gray cardigan. Carmichael enters and carries the straight back chair downstage center. She speaks the words as if they are both conversational and poetic. Although she plays the rhythms of the language, hers is a more human approach than Billy Whitelaw’s recorded voice. While restrained, she shows emotion and her face is expressive, but not excessively so.
Beckett’s explicit stage directions have W a prisoner of the chair, hands clasped to the rocker’s arms, no longer able to move. Carmichael , by contrast, makes a rare gesture, stands, and walks behind the chair to illustrate her mother coming “down the steep stair.” She sets the chair on its rear legs and rocks it, as she looks into it as if her mother were there. When she then assumes her mother’s role, Carmichael sits stiffly, rigidly clutching the chair’s invisible arms, as she rocks herself to death. Brook’s staging clarified the plot by separating the two women. It is a moving performance, but takes liberties that likely Beckett would have rejected.
Myers and Oïda are together again in Acts Without Words II, but without interacting. A farcical mime, it treats the imposition of routine by outside forces, a familiar Beckett subject. The action consists of getting up, getting dressed, and ready for the day, and then reversing the process.
Each character carries a rock-like formation downstage and reshapes it as a sack; Myers places a pile of clothing on the stage. Both actors roll themselves in the sacks, using them as beds. A pole drops down from above and prods one sack, giving new meaning to hitting the sack. Oïda’s character, clumsy and confused, emerges and performs a comic number that could have been drawn from silent film. He struggles to put on the clothing, getting the pants front to back in the process, the shoes on the wrong feet. In turn, Myers’s character repeats the same action, but frenetically, checking his blood pressure, popping pills, and shadow boxing as he goes through his morning routine. Oïda and Myers’s timing, precision, characterization and movement skills are a joy to watch.
Neither, written by Beckett as the eighty-seven word libretto for Morton Feldman’s modernist opera, is played by Hayley Carmichael as a monologue. Her strictly controlled, yet touching performance links Neither to Rockaby, as she paces “to and fro from inner to outer shadow.” Neither morphs seamlessly into Come and Go, the last of the quintet, as Bruce Myers and Yoishi Oïda join
Carmichael as the two men move the bench downstage, removing it at the play’s end.
Brook found comedy in this play of three gossiping women at the end of their lives, but had to resort to putting Myers and Oïda in drag to do it. Gray-bearded Myers wears a woman’s red coat, straw hat, and black shoes, Oïda an orange coat, straw hat, and similar black shoes. The yellow-coated Carmichael was in harmony with them as she too plays a stereotypical old lady with secrets to tell. Sweet, charming, and amusing, this Come and Go nevertheless violates Beckett’s sacrosanct stage directions.
The Grand Inquisitor
Adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne, Peter Brook’s collaborator (and co-director of Fragments), Dostoyevsky’s parable The Grand Inquisitor poses the question of how Jesus would be treated if he returned to earth. Set in Seville during the Inquisition, the work is both narration and monologue. The shorter first section describes the miracles Jesus performs in Seville along with his arrest by the Inquisition. During the second section, he is visited in prison by the Grand Inquisitor who asks, “Why have you come to disturb us?” After informing him that he will be burned at the stake the following day, the Inquisitor endeavors to convince the wordless Jesus that his teachings were wrong, that human beings need discipline, order, and miracles to keep them in line, rather than the freedom of choice: “…. you thought too highly of man.” The cold, rational, casuistic argument is compelling, no matter your religious beliefs.
Myers, as both narrator and Inquisitor, was also compelling, at least for the first quarter hour of the forty-five minute monologue. As the Inquisitor, his speech was directed at an actor placed in front of the stage, his back to the audience. Clad in a long black coat, his voice well modulated – at times gentle, at others stern and even angry – Myers had great authority. And then it was gone. The exhausted jet-lagged actor forgot his lines, not once, but several times and needed prompting. It was unfortunate for the audience and for Meyers, who had given proof of his capacity to play this difficult part, not just in the early portion of the performance at the Paramount Theatre, but in other venues where his portrayal had won him distinction.
THÉÂTRE DES BOUFFES DU NORD PRESENTS
ROUGH FOR THEATRE I, ROCKABY, ACT WITHOUT WORDS II, NEITHER
and COME AND GO
PETER BROOK and MARIE HÉLÈNE ESTIENNE
Produced by C.I.C.T. / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
IN THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV BY FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY
MARIE HÉLÈNE ESTIENNE
Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, Boston, MA