Son’s film reveals secret workings of stage maestro Peter Brook’s art

by Mana Katsura

Special To The Japan Times

Peter Brook is a titan in the world of theater. Now aged 89, the director staged his first work, Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” in 1942. After a groundbreaking stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s, in 1970 the London-born director co-founded the International Centre for Theatre Research and toured widely with it in the Middle East and Africa. Then, in 1974, Brook took over the old and storied Theatre Bouffes du Nord in Paris as the base for that multinational troupe, remaining as artistic director there until 2008.

Besides his astonishing body of work spanning theater, opera and films, Brook is also an acclaimed author. In particular, his 1968 book “The Empty Space” is commonly termed “timeless” and “definitive” for its amazing analysis of the nature and purpose of theater — issues that may seem simple, but can actually awaken in audiences entirely new awarenesses of the human condition.

Although the director’s rehearsal space is famously off-limits to the public as he believes the mere presence of outsiders would influence what happens, in 2012 his son Simon released “Peter Brook: The Tightrope,” a documentary he directed that captures the firmament where his father’s art takes form in his unending drive to make theater “real.”

Seen through this cinematic keyhole, it is truly thrilling to watch the rapid and experimental evolution of Brook’s creative exercises primarily centered around an imaginary rope laid atop a carpet. This then becomes the eponymous tightrope to be traversed by actors in a taxing exercise Brook sets for them to blend imagination and physicality, and immersion in the present while being mindful of the future, so as to create a story’s new reality.

But the film, with its dozens of participants, even goes beyond such theatrical revelations, since the master also uniquely discusses on camera the philosophical roots of his work.

So it was with great excitement that this reporter recently met Simon Brook in Paris and started our conversation by asking what led to him making “The Tightrope.”

“After I directed ‘Brook by Brook’ (2002), which could be said to be a portrait of my father, I started wanting to film the rehearsals because there is almost no record of any of them,” he explained. “So I spoke to my father, and we decided that I would film an improvisation workshop over the course of two weeks. In order to not hinder the concentration of the participants, I installed five hidden cameras.”

Some actors known for their appearances in Brook’s works appear in “The Tightrope,” including Japan’s Yoshi Oida, Shantala Shivalingappa from India and the Italian, Marcello Magni — each demonstrating their individuality while unfolding fresh expression.

“I want audiences to see this on as large a screen as possible, because then it’s easier to get absorbed into the magiclike phenomenon,” the film’s creator said without any hint of spin as he pointed out how it shows “the sense of trust that is born within the group through rehearsals.

“That way, I hope to share a feeling like a cleansing of the spirit, like meditating at a Zen temple in Kyoto. Both my father and I had young actors participate in order to create a place that connects to the future, instead of just being a memorial.

“But the musician Toshi is an important presence and he understands my father’s way of thinking, so we invited him from Japan.”

The “Toshi” in question was 63-year-old Toshiyuki Tsuchitori, the remarkable improvisational musical artist who first worked with Peter Brook nearly 40 years ago. In November, he will perform the music for Peter Brook’s new play, “The Valley of Astonishment,” which premiered in Paris in May and will have its Japan debut then at Festival/Tokyo.

While I was in Paris, I also had the chance to meet Tsuchitori, who told me what he especially likes about working with the legendary dramatist.

“Peter Brook is always in pursuit of the human essence,” he replied straight off. “The great thing about his art is how he gathers people from different cultures and creates international works. Peter’s belief that ‘difference is the source of creation’ is manifested even in his rehearsals.”

With that intriguing snippet from Tsuchitori in mind, I am now looking forward even more keenly to Simon Brook visiting Japan this month for advance screenings ahead of “The Tightrope” opening (in English and French, with Japanese subtitles) at Theatre Image Forum in Shibuya, Tokyo, and other venues nationwide from September.

There will be an advance screening of “The Tightrope” on July 13 at KAAT (Kanagawa Arts Theatre: www.kaat.jp) in Yokohama, after which Simon Brook will give a talk along with KAAT Artistic Supervisor Akira Shirai. On July 19, at Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater (www. saf.or.jp), he will give after-show talks at 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. (both with Eng. lit. scholar Shoichiro Kawai and then translator Kazuko Matsuoka). There will be no talk after July 20′s two screenings there, though “Brook by Brook” will be shown on both days. On Aug. 3, a sixth advance screening will be held at the Biwako Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Shiga Prefecture (www.biwako-hall.or. jp). This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.