Distiller at work

June 26, 1998

THREADS OF TIME. A memoir. By Peter Brook. 241pp. Methuen. Pounds 17.99. - 0 413 69620 0.

Not long after the formation of the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, Peter Brook took his company of actors across the world to explore the meanings of performance in different countries. In California, they worked with Luis Valdez's company of Chicano actors, El Teatro Campesi$o. In his memoir, Threads of Time, Brook describes one joint performance with Valdez's actors as particularly memorable "because no one came to it at all". Undaunted by the empty benches, the cast headed out into the streets to bang drums to find an audience, a ploy which had been successful in similar crises in their trip to Africa, "leaving us to discover that in California there are no passers-by". Banging drums at the windows of cars stopped at traffic lights, an action that would seem to me likely to result in one or two actors being shot, they drew friendly smiles from drivers, who may have been convinced that the actors were mad, "but as the lights changed they slipped into gear and we realised that Africa was very far away". Brook is interested in uncovering the roots of theatre. His brilliant exploration of the presence of the actor, Qui est la?, was a theatrical treatise on the basic necessities of performance. But even the most minimalist of theatre events needs an audience. The actors' experience of Californian audiences and car culture is one of the best theatre stories I have read for years - but it is also endearing, not least because Brook seems unaware how funny it is.

Unlike many memoirs, Threads of Time is not an occasion for self-revelation. It is striking that, as he narrates his work since the move to Paris, Brook speaks more often of "we" than "I". He remains, by the end of the book, scrupulously private about most personal matters. After one brief paragraph describing his intense joy at watching his children being born, he never refers to them again. But the memoir is also an explicit narrative of his spiritual quest. Like a seventeenth-century Puritan autobiography, the central issue is Brook's inner life. He is passionately concerned to communicate his quest for self-understanding through his work with two spiritual teachers, Jane Heap and Madame de Salzmann, disciples of George Gurdjieff, whose life was the subject of Brook's film Meetings with Remarkable Men. He spends longer describing the filming of Gurdjieff's autobiography than any other work he has created, but the reason is less the merits of the finished product than that it enables him to write of his admiration and love for Salzmann, whose presence dominated the weeks of photography.

Everything in Brook's life conspired to bring him to his encounter with Gurdjieff's teachings. His work with the theatre designer George Wakhevitch led him to read Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous. A love affair with a woman he calls Jean (no surname) served to identify as Gurdjieff the mysterious figure G of whom Ouspensky writes. "Jean" also put him in touch with Jane Heap, his first spiritual teacher. Brook makes clear that his book on theatre practice, The Empty Space, perhaps the most influential theatre book of the past fifty years, was only written so that he could pay for a long trip to Afghanistan "in search of the sacred" with his wife, Natasha Parry, and another couple - again, shadowy, unnamed presences in the narrative. Scrupulously honest and wryly self-mocking in his account of this inner quest, Brook is unaware that he is trying to communicate the incommunicable, or at least that his style does not enable the reader to share in much of that inward journey. At times, the writing is a succession of embarrassing cliches, sounding more like the work of a gauche adolescent than of a sophisticated creator of some of the most intellectually demanding and sensuously exciting theatre the century has seen.

Along the way, Brook says much that is provocative and intriguing. For someone who has so often been the greatest exponent of the power and immediacy of live theatre, Brook's early fascination with cinema and its dominance in his approach to theatre is surprising. Almost everyone considering the work of Samuel Beckett in future will want to play with Brook's passing statement that Beckett once confided to him that "for him a play was a ship sinking not far from the coast while the audience watches helplessly from the cliffs as the gesticulating passengers drown", a wry statement that certainly speaks of Brook's solemn and trusting naivety. But Threads of Time is rarely revealing about Brook's work. Only in the account of the work in Paris, in that grand collaborative attempt to redefine the relationship of actor to role through a new understanding of theatrical communication in different cultures, do the threads come together. In the light of this memoir, the work of the Centre takes on a spiritual dimension that is more profoundly important for Brook than anything else its researches may uncover.

In Italy, Brook once found himself in the canteen of a distillery with a group of theatre directors, all, like him, dissatisfied with the term their different languages offered for their "professional function". Not bossy English "directors" nor functional French "metteurs-en-sc ne", not physical-training Swedish "instruktors", nor book-keeping German "Regisseurs", they all finally agreed to Ermanno Olmi's suggestion: they would be "distillatori", distillers. Peter Brook's theatre has long been a distillation of the accumulated wisdom of his research. Threads of Time finally distils the links between his spiritual self and his intensely creative practice of theatre.

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