An interview with 'Fragments' director Peter Brook
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, April 7, 2011
The career of vanguard British director Peter Brook has been burnished with acts of theatrical disobedience, from the moment he stripped down "King Lear" in 1962, presenting Royal Shakespeare Company audiences with their first bleak, post-industrial Lear, to his film version of "Lord of the Flies," for which he deposited a horde of young non-actors on an island for months with minimal supervision in the name of realism.
Decades after those heady days trailblazing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and later years ratcheting up the experimentation with his own theater, the Paris-based Bouffes du Nord, Brook, 86, is still on his mission to reinvent theater.
Next week, the director brings "Fragments," his abridged dance with Samuel Beckett, to the Kennedy Center. Brook has said frequently that the joy and humor of Beckett get short shrift; with the five short, rarely performed pieces he chose for "Fragments," including a poem, "Neither," the well-known "Rockaby" and the silent "Act Without Words II," Brook aims to get at the lighter side of the "Waiting for Godot" playwright. (They might be "lighter," but the plays still are basically existential.)
As renowned as he is abroad, Brook has not brought a production to the Kennedy Center since 1973. On the eve of his return, he talked with The Post about "Fragments," his career and why he's bored with talking about his age.
How did you come to assemble these particular Beckett pieces? What's the connection?
Beckett is not the pessimistic lover of darkness and misery that the world considered Beckett to be. This image of the author of black, dark, pessimistic works has always remained there, even though there's always an enormous amount of comedy that's always been there -- black comedy.
Beckett was a man with a radiant sense of life. . . . He hated easy optimism, that sort of American optimism. It was something that he fought against and disliked; it was at a time directly after the war, when everyone swanned to a happy optimism. With the actors, we put together and developed "Fragments" with laughter and a sense of the painfulness of life: not thinking, "Ah, life is even worse than we thought," but with the radiant sense of having experienced something that goes beyond the sordid everyday. The "fragments" are in fact one whole piece when put together.
The works you have chosen in your career have been so varied, but your aesthetic has really carried through: You strip away.
When I was young, I threw myself in every sort of excess, in life and in the theater. In the process of growing older, one sees more clearly what really is useful and what is useless. That's why I don't recommend to any young person to follow what I'm doing. You can't start with simplicity as a beginning. It's a natural result of seeing, "Ah, this can be better if we get rid of this." That has to be through experience.
How do you begin to deconstruct -- or, in this case, construct -- a work?
It's difficult when you have an author who you try to take a work literally. One of the most important works here is "Rockaby," written to be done by a woman sitting, listening to her own voice coming to her through a loudspeaker. And in Beckett's day, it was a very daring, extraordinary invention for a play to have someone sitting there silently listening to a voice amplified, and prerecorded.
I found directly, by experiment, that the words have a deeper meaning if the actress is sitting there speaking the words as her thoughts. . . . It's a tiny change, and an enormous change.
What do you think of theater today?
I don't. I'm not interested. For me, doing is thinking.
When we did "Carmen," there was a scene with a lover of Carmen, where she has an orange in her mouth. He pops it in her mouth and he sucks it from the other side. And months later, I got a learned paper from a German university examining "Brook's Symbolic Use of Oranges." It made me laugh. And so I don't want to play that game.
So you're 86 this year.
Something very boring has happened since my last birthday. For 85 years nobody has written about my age, and suddenly, it's something everyone wants to write about.
It's a fact -- not very interesting to me.