Unsung creator casts light on casting and her ‘gift from heaven’

by

Special To The Japan Times

Ask any Japanese theater lover to list his or her favorite foreign directors, and most would include Peter Brook, the English-born, long-time French resident who has been bringing his productions here and encouraging audiences to explore new artistic realms since way back in 1973.

Among Brook’s triumphs here was his legendary 1988 production of the Hindu epic poem “Mahabharata,” which he premiered at the Avignon Festival in France three years before. However, few of his fans would be familiar with the name of Marie-Helene Estienne, the Frenchwoman who cast that show and has been Brook’s creative partner for more than 30 years.

As was reported on this page, last autumn’s Festival/Tokyo 2014 featured “The Valley of Astonishment,” which Estienne wrote and directed together with Brook. But while she was here for that production, she also conducted a workshop with Japanese directors and actors in which I participated, too, and was astonished by her sharp powers of observation, her warmth and the way she inspired each one of us.

In an interview after the workshop, I first asked her how she felt it had gone — to which she replied, “It resonated with me how each person’s experiences and humanity came through when they embodied the text. I felt how wonderful it is to be alive and to be in a space where we can hear each other’s voices.”

When I said I was amazed how she could decide in an instant what role would be best for people, despite having just met them, she said, “Casting is my profession. What are people suited for? Who would be good at what role? That is, how to recognize people’s characters. You could say I was born with that capacity. Not long after I met Peter in 1969, he told me, ‘You’ve got to do casting.’

“I had been a journalist in the art field,” Estienne continued. “Then I started to write about the stage, and when foreign avant-garde theater came to Paris in the 1970s, I did a lot of reviews. Before long, I wanted to make theater myself — and working with Peter is like a gift from heaven.”

Widely regarded as a genius, Brook — who turns 90 this week — is “tremendously sensitive and patient, and has incredible energy and is always high-spirited,” Estienne said. “He also has incomparable powers of concentration and is constantly paying attention at many levels and creating an atmosphere where everyone can naturally develop.”

As for the future, she pointed to hers and Brook’s upcoming Paris production of “Sotto Voce,” a work by the Cuban-American Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz about a novelist in Nazi Germany who was in love with a Jew. “The play communicates beautifully the wonder of imagination, and it’s also humorous,” she said — surely whetting the appetite of audiences in Japan eager to once again explore new artistic realms along with the remarkable creative duo of Estienne and Brook.

This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.