Peter Brook and stripping

07/06/2022

Peter Brook has died nearly a hundred years old. If he entered the theater and the cinema very early, it is to be expected that there will be several Peter Brooks. The director of the 1967 film Marat-Sade is not very different from that of King Lear just three years later, and here we are referring to films based on plays. One of them, one of the greatest classics. Another was the great European discovery of the sixties, the work of Peters Weiss. They are works with a wide cast, and they could also give rise to showy sets. It was not like that, stripping was already a personal mark of the artist. Over time, Brook agreed to a theater saved by that, by the stripping and the search for an essence that we could consider the truth. Simply.

I have before me my copy of The Empty Space, translated by Ramón Gil Novales, who was a splendid playwright who, if I’m not mistaken, threw in the towel due to the hostility of the Hispanic theatrical environment. He cast her as a playwright, but she was so much more. I see my copy with marks and annotations, a reading I know was passionate. I have to check it out. Maybe I can do it this month, and then I’ll share the rereading on this page.

These days much has been written about Peter Brook, a leading figure. Today I would like to dust off a writing of mine from a long time ago. I would like to evoke the Peter Brook of the Bouffes du Nord, the most stripped. There is no need to recall the Mahabharata (1985), much has already been done these days. I remember his Carmen (La tragédie de Carmen, to be exact), I remember his Pelléas et Mélisande, I remember his surprising Hamlet. Actors from very diverse countries and cultures came together in these productions. Both Carmen and Hamlet are in audiovisual format, they are available. On the other hand, I think his Impressions de Pelléas is not. I have reread my writing from when this show could be seen at the Teatro de la Comedia. I had forgotten it, and it has been difficult for me to find where something was hidden. I haven’t seen the show again, so I can’t disagree with myself, even though it’s been thirty years. I published it on ABC, at the request of José Luis Rubio. Instead, I did disagree with some judgments about the show. More than anything because I liked it. Thirty years ago I expressed it like this and, despite being tempted to do so, I have not changed a single comma:

Peter Brook: The Mystery and the Truth (ABC, cultural supplement, 12.24.1992)

Have we forgotten Maurice Materlinck (1862-1949), Nobel Prize and all, for the misty, faded load of works like Pelléas et Mélisande (1893) and Ariane et Barbe Bleu (1902), pieces that may continue the plot , although the second part was released nine years after the first? Could it be true that we only remember those two titles thanks to Debussy and Dukas? Is it not truer that the corpse of the Belgian symbolist is one of the many that precede the death of the theater itself? There are times that, to their disgrace, kill the theater. Others, more delicate and cultured, revive him and place him at the center of their attention. What do we know about the deep causes of the forgetfulness, perhaps provisional, of a text, of an author? Have we not killed our living authors with careless disdain?

In Impressions de Pelléas Peter Brook has wanted to do Debussy, but also Maeterlinck. The result of his collaboration with Marius Constant is not a paraphrase, but a stylization and, in part, a synthesis. Text and music have been stripped in the dramaturgical and in the musical. The problem was not the alleged sacrilege of cutting Claude from France, but performing a piano reduction. Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande differs in two essential ways. On the one hand, the continuity of a French prosodic recitative, away from any bel canto fickleness, which implies the service of a text that has to be understood. It is one of the great contributions of the 20th century to lyrical theater that, for example, was applied very early by Béla Bartók, without servitude, in Bluebeard’s Castle. This remains in the Brook-Constant version. On the other hand, Debussy provides an enveloping orchestral accompaniment whose timbre dimension is essential. When the piano works of Debussy or Ravel are orchestrated, they become “another work” by virtue of harmonic elements and, above all, color. The same will happen in a reduction, as in this case, to two pianos. Has Debussy’s work been undermined in the sound version of Marius Constant that we have seen at the Comedy Theatre? In the purist and rigorous sense, yes. In the dramatic sense that Brook intends, no. Let’s see.

There is a French expression to refer to a gathering of friends who play at home: “musiquer ensemble”. When the six actor-singers appear in a setting that could be contemporary to Debussy’s Pelléas (1902) and surround the pianists, they already give us the key to the show we are going to attend: they are going to “operate together”. In privacy. It is no longer chamber opera. It is theater and it is intimacy. From that convention arises the scenic movement (without forest, without mist, without symbolism) and in it is understood (more than justified) the device that, in principle, may seem so anti-Pelléas. That attitude, that bourgeois decoration, the reduction and the lyrical-dramatic cuts, together with performances in which the direction of the actors is careful to detail in the tension that is almost never manifested in the relationships between characters, are configured as the option of this splendid theatrical spectacle, as its code. And for it we must perceive it, enjoy it and, if we are allowed, judge it.

In Brook’s proposal, not only scenes disappear, but also characters, such as the doctor and the pastor. And Yniold’s interventions are reduced (at the cost of singing, he is a child here, since with such a proposal the presence of a soprano would be annoying), Arkel and Geneviève. The leading nucleus remains, the triangle: Mélisande, Pelléas and Golaud. Ai-Lan Zhu (three Mélisande, three far-eastern, in these six days: for a reason), Theruel and Drabowicz, in the performance on the 21st, offered, without being divas (nor do they need to), a lesson in singing-acting, scenic truth and dramatic beauty without emphasis, suggestive and subtle. Sylvia Schluter’s brief intervention in Geneviève shows us a simply captivating actress and singer.

The enveloping nature of the music does not disappear, as is shown by some of the preserved intermissions, which propose visual developments (of the characters, of the friends who “operate together”?), and in certain key scenes (two important pianist-accompanists , Lavoix and Cohen), and then crystallizes more than ever the miracle of the theater-opera synthesis. A miracle that, with a proposal this elaborate, careful, recreated, seems to us more unattainable than ever in any lyrical theatre. The anti-conventionalism of Debussy’s music remains, which ninety years later continues to propose a way out from the routine of the usual lyrical repertoire. The famous “mystery” of this opera, of this drama, remains, very nuanced, and that revolves around the enigmatic figure of Mélisande, who will never say who she is. It is this mystery that is sublimated in recordings of the work, such as the pioneering and excellent Desormière (1942), transgressed in Boulez (1970), recovered more symphonically than dramatically in Karajan (1978), reinterpreted today by Dutoit ( 1990) and Abbado (1991). Brook does not crush it, but interprets it by incorporating, and at the same time estrangement, from the original environment: he strips it of mists and returns it intact. With the truth of him.

Santiago Martin Bermudez

The credits were then the following:
Madrid. Fall Festival. comedy theaterDecember 21, 1992 (scheduled until the 27th). Impressions of Pelléas, based on Pelléas et Mélisande by C. Debussy and M. Materlinck. Ai-Lan Zhu (Melisande). Sylvia Schluter (Geneviève). Gerard Theruel (Pelleas). Wojciech Drabowicz (Golaud). Jean-Clement Bergeron (Arkel). Alexandre Abate (Yniold). Claude Lavoix and Jeff Cohen (piano). Musical realization: Marius Constant. Set design and costumes: Chloé Obolensky. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Artistic collaboration: Marie-Helène Estienne. Direction: Peter Brook.

[Publicado en el suplemento cultural de ABC, 24.12.92]

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Peter Brook and stripping