Posts Tagged ‘Peter Brook’

Double Header Review – Weald, Finborough Theatre and Battlefield, Young Vic

February 24, 2016

There are two sweet, short shows on right now that end this week, and if you’re trying to decide which to book, you’re probably going to have to choose one or the other. Weald, on through the 27th at the Finborough, is a highly naturalistic show set in present day England that looks at the relationship between an older and a younger man working at a horse stable. Battlefield (at the Young Vic through the 27th), written and directed by Peter Brook (and Marie-Hélène Estienne), is a highly stylized slice of the Mahabharata, an epic story of battle and family rivalry. Night and day, right?

Well, actually, seeing the two shows so closely together, I found many more similarities than differences between them. Peter Brook, as world famous director, seems the likely choice to have created a better product, but in some ways his style has very much informed the production of Weald, which is (seemingly) all about horses with nary a horse on stage. Brook has us seeing gods walking on stage, people transforming into animals, souls leaving bodies and fires raging on stage; Weald similarly takes tiny cues (a bridle, feed buckets) and creates the snuffling, kicking, smelly, warm ungulates that are never represented by so much as a single hoof. It’s all about the actors and the words, and in both cases, our actors take us on a journey: to scenes of tragic death; to scenes of horrible betrayal; to scenes in which the golden light of humanity shines out of a mere actor’s eyes. I saw the grassy countryside through which Cromwell’s army marched, and the blood covered banks of the Ganges; and the goddess of the river rising and crying.

Weald isn’t a perfect script (Battlefield is doubtlessly stronger), and while Peter Brook has honestly created something I can mostly only describe as a perfect theatrical experience, well … I’d like to encourage you to try to see Weald, especially if you have seen a Brook work on stage before. I feel language that is so believable – and is about the world we live in now – is not often come by, and this work by a younger playwright could use you more that Brook can. But, really, they were both very special. Might I suggest you catch the final Sunday show and do the Brook as well? I think you will not consider it time poorly spent; I found it lovely.

(This review is for the Sunday February 21st performance of Weald and the Tuesday February 23rd performance of Battlefield.)

Review – Peter Brook’s “A Magic Flute” – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at Barbican Theater

March 24, 2011

There are really just a few reasons to see Peter Brook’s A Magic Flute: because 1) you love The Magic Flute and want to see and hear the music wherever it is performed; 2) you are a Peter Brook “empty space” fetishist and want to see his work wherever it is performed; 3) you are a Magic Flute fangrrl who has to see every variation of this show. As it happened, I am a #2 and the friend I went with (Brrd) was a #3 (she wants to direct her own version).

Who, then, is most likely to enjoy this show? Well, underneath it all, Brrd and I are also Magic Flute fans, and I think we were both disappointed in the music. She is a trained singer and found all of the voices in the show not strong enough to handle singing over full orchestra. I, not trained, found the Queen of the Night (Leila Benhamza) lacking presence and a certain richness that makes her role and music more than just a “see me do this trick” event – all of her music should be lush, but wasn’t. Stripped down is okay for costumes and sets, but it’s not okay for music. As it was, the show only had a piano, and I found myself dissatisfied by how incredibly tinny and thin it sounded, especially when it was supposed to be a flute. I can understand a variety of reasons for getting by with less, but Brrd noted they hadn’t really even raised the lid to let the sound come out. Was it because the singers couldn’t compete? Whatever the decision, from the point of view of fans of the Magic Flute, this was a very dissatisfying evening.

Still, there’s no reason why we couldn’t still have a good time at the show. “A” flute doesn’t have to be “the” flute and can still be good, and both of us were willing to judge this show on its merits. Unfortunately, while I like the idea of getting through an opera in about 90 minutes, so much was cut away from the characterization that Tamino (Antonio Figueroa) came off a bit stupid. Papageno (Virgile Frannais) and Pamina (Agnieszka Slawinska, beautiful) managed to have enough of their clear-cut characters (earthy buffoon, lovesick yet loyal young lady) to create engaging roles.

The Brook style was interesting to see – we had barefoot actors, bamboo poles for scenery, a flute, a blanket, a rope, and a chicken for props. I was able to buy into the world they were creating, especially the fantastic “trial by fire” scene (incredibly theatrical and the best moment of the whole show, a benchmark for other Flutes in my book), but the water scene was nonexistent (and right next to the fire so massively suffering by comparison). I am willing to have my Queen of the Night be wearing just a simple robe, but … overall, just too much was stripped out of the music and the characters for this show to really work. By those standards, I can recommend this production neither to those who love the music or those who are fans of Brook; only go see it if you are a Flute completist. Otherwise, wait for a richer production – either musically (for Flute fans) or dramatically (for Brook fans) – lest you end your evening going, “I just spent how much on that?”

(This review is for a production that took lace on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011. It continues through March 27th.)

Mini-review – Shunkin – Complicite at Barbican Centre

November 13, 2010

You know what’s great about a liberal arts education? While you never learn anything particularly useful, you’ll often find you’ve learned things that make you enjoy life more. Me, I left college without having read a word of Austen, the Brontes, or Nancy Mitford (the horror!), yet I was well versed in Japanese literature. That meant the peaceful purity of Kawabata, the freak show that is Mishima, and … Tanizaki. His Makioka Sisters was one of my favorite novels, but his dark analysis of the human psyche came out much better in his short stories. I know I read his Seven Japanese Tales back in the day, but by the time 2010 rolled around, I’d completely forgotten about “A Portrait of Shunkin,” the story of a blind shamisen player and her servant/student adapted by Complicite for their current show at the Barbican (“Shun-kin”). It’s closing tonight and I wouldn’t normally spend time writing a review up this late in the game, but I loved it so much I want to make a final effort to alert anyone who might enjoy this show about what a truly stupendous work of theater it is.

First, the show is almost entirely done in Japanese. The subtitles on the sides of the stage were occasionally distracting because they required me to be constantly flicking my attention to them, causing me to miss what was happening on stage; however, this was a minor flaw. Second, while this looks like a puppet show, in fact, it’s a show in which one of the characters is occasionally portrayed by a puppet, while the other characters are all done by actual actors. Third, this show really digs into some twisted realms of the human psyche. The lightest of these moments is the bit with puppet sex (which I’ve seen before but its execution was stupendous, with the arms and legs of the puppet floating above the stage); but what it illustrates is extreme dependence, denial, and abuse. Child abandonment, attempted rape, the physical mutilation of other and self … really, it’s all quite intense and hair raising (or stomach clenching). My companion was almost speechless at the end of the night.

But what it’s all about to me is the two things I love to see most on a stage: a fantastic story and its delivery with the barest of elements (sticks, kimono, a teapot), in this case in what I see as the Peter Brook style. Shunkin’s servant, Sasuke, is portrayed both as his young self and simultaneously as his old self, remembering what happened, while a third person experiences the servant’s story as he reads it in a book; a live Shamisen player is Shunkin’s teacher but then the music of Shunkin and the music played by her servant (the music plays endlessly and adds a wonderful texture to the show). Tatami mats fly around the stage to arrange themselves as the various interiors; people hold and move poles to show doors opening and closing and walls forming (and disappearing) around the actors as they move through the space. I didn’t care for the use of projections: the fluttering pieces of paper used to show birds was more effective than the animations of them on the wall; but again, this is a quibble. Similarly I didn’t care for the framing device of the woman narrating this story in modern Japan; being snapped back to this element at the end of the story, when I just wanted to bend over and cry at the brokenness of Shunkin and Sasuke and my own inevitable death, was just too harsh and unnecessary. We ended with a whimper after the bang; but oh, such a beautiful, sad bang, with the actors holding poles draped over the quiet form of Shunkin, creating perfectly the feeling of a pine tree on the side of a hill, sheltering and hiding what she and Sasuke left on earth, and leaving us with a feeling of a sadness that lasted beyond lifetimes.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 12th, 2010. There are two final performances of Shunkin at the Barbican today, November 13th.)

Review – 11 and 12 – Peter Brook’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Barbican

February 6, 2010

Last night I went with J and A to see the new Peter Brook show at the Barbican Center. To be honest, I hadn’t really cared much about what it was about: I just wanted to see something by Peter Brook! I mean, can you say legend? I personally can barely remember any names of people involved in theater at all (it’s a personal failing, or, rather, it’s how I like it to be); mostly I worship the cult of The Author. Anyway, I had bought tickets back in December for this thing, and I’d gone for a preview performance (extra savings), and, in a moment of genius by the Barbican in their pricing structure, I’d actually bought second row seats for far cheaper than anything in the middle, meaning that I was feeling quite damned smug when I realized that for a mere six quid (with further member discount) I’d scored an entirely brilliant position right in front of the stage, second row center.

Okay, well, truth be told, I wasn’t actually feeling that gleeful, because the description of the show I was about to see made me think of, I kid you not, skipping out on it altogether. Colonial Africa – oppression – stupid religious factionalism driving people apart. It just all seemed like another opportunity to be lectured at from the stage by yet another smug white person who wanted to make sure we all were feeling guilty about how we’d screwed the world up. GAH message productions GAH depressing content GAH being lectured to on stage. It just made me want to club a baby seal, or, you know, sit and drink instead of watching the show. But, crap, it did say that it was less than two hours running time (around 90 minutes), straight through no break, so … I made myself go.

As the curtain metaphorically opened on the stage (as there was no curtain but you know what I mean), I saw an utterly stripped down set, basically four tree-ish sticks on rolling platforms in front of a very large rectangle of fabric, with a musician (Toshi Tsuchitori) off to the side. Its “lessness” was like being hit in the head with a … er, club, and what it said was This Is Peter Brook. Because, you know, Peter Brook is Mr. The Empty Stage and pretty much any time you see so very little on a stage it is saying Peter Brook Was Here even if it’s not a show by him. But this was a polished perfection of lessness. Nothing looked cheap or “settled for;” it looked “I thought very long and hard and this is exactly, without question, how I wanted to express my vision.” I was impressed, not by it’s “lessness,” but by … well, shit, it was like seeing some painting by Dali or somebody of that caliber, where just nothing was left to chance. It was like an altar, every tiny bit seething with meaning and potential. In London, the received theatrical style is so much one of explicit realism, and, while I do really appreciate the perfection of that form, this was every bit as powerful as any overdesigned, 100% historically accurate reproduction of the sort I feel I’ve seen rather a lot of in recent years. Brook’s set was like leaving the planet London for, er, Antartica.

Or, in this case, Africa. 11 and 12 is set in Mali, in the Africa that was ruled by the French, in a period of time that’s not discussed too explicitly in the play but which seems to be about thirty or forty years that end after World War II (based on a description of the types of people who were kept prisoner at a certain jail in France). But we’re not loaded under a mountain of teachy historical specificity and boring recitations of begats: instead, we’re given a few people, a random occurrence, and one young man (Tunji Lucas) making his way through life.

Now, there’s a weighty atmosphere of Life Under the French (a matter of some interest to me after my visit to Morocco; I’ve felt hatred for America before but never such a loathing as I experienced there for a nation as individuals), but the skein is one of friendships and the strange ramifications of the inadvertent twelfth recitation of a prayer. The young man is the student of a kind, religious man (Tierno, Makram J Khoury) who tells parables and basically teaches peace and acceptance; but in an atmosphere of paranoia and control where the French Directorate is basically a stand-in for every police force in the world that could just as easily been created by Kafka. The ongoing questions is, why are two halves of this country arguing to the point of murder over whether or not a prayer should be recited eleven or twelve times? This is the question that weighs heavily on the play, not which number is right. The French see eleven as a point of rebellion; the people see the choice of one or another as a matter of identity; those who worship the way of peace – for so Tierno and his peer (Cherif, Khalifa Natour) are despite being on opposite sides – see it as a matter of no importance.

This attitude of theirs is what makes this play more than just a perfectly told tale of one man’s life as a bureaucrat under an oppressive regime and turns it into something rich. I loved the presentation and the imagery and the cat and mouse games the locals played with each other and the French; I was interested in the history that was being slid in; but I really enjoyed feeling my mind expanding to think about the philosophical questions Tierno and Cherif brought up. This was no glad-handed Hakuna Matata crap; it was solid questions about what divides us, what makes us human, how does religion fit into it all, why are people cruel. I wasn’t just getting a story; I was getting an insight into humanity.

As it ended and I sat there thinking (and talking) about what we’d just seen, I tried to pick it apart to find the flaws. Yeah, the women depicted didn’t have very flattering roles. And there was a certain lack of spontenaeity to the production – everything seemed to have been thought out to the very last second and to lack room for … I don’t know, breathing, for the actors to be in the now and not just performing the perfectly chosen “this is the word, this is the movement” the production seemed to dictate. The only second I saw that didn’t seem to be prechosen was when Khoury couldn’t get a tree to sit still and had to move himself to the ground, soon after to be followed by Khalifa. But otherwise, every lovely moment of ever so very little seemed to have been scripted from the ceiling right down to the floor.

Still, though, it was all really done so well. As we left, I remembered that I’d seen Peter Brook’s name a million times at my house, on the side of a little textbook my husband has from his college days. How could someone I associated with crumbling paper create something so alive? I went expecting to be preached to and instead enjoyed this lovely vision of people living and thinking about their lives that seemed so just … perfect. Like everything I always hope theater will be. And I only paid six quid to be in the middle of all this. I felt a bit like a cheater; I hadn’t paid so little to have so very much given to me. But how would Tierno have seen it? I think he would have seen it as an opportunity to give back. And so I give this to you. 11 and 12: gosh, it was good. I know it was better than almost everything I saw last year, and will likely rise like cream amidst the shows of 2010, as it is a piece of truly outstanding theater. Don’t miss the chance to see this. 11 and 12 is theatrical perfection.

(This review is for a performance seen on Friday, February 5th, 2010. It was supposedly a preview but I have no idea how they’re going to improve it. For further reviews, please see A Younger Theater and The Guardian. My husband is going to buy the book it was based on, Hampate Ba’s “The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar: The Sage of Bandiagara.” Also,Toshi Tsuchitori was fantastic. The show runs through February 27th. Hesitate to purchase tickets and live to regret it.)