I’m usually a super fast reader, but it took me forever to get through The Shifting Point. I’m trying to pin down exactly what about it was such a slog, but it’s hard to identify exactly. Certainly one factor is that the book isn’t at all cohesive. It’s a mishmash of speeches, articles, diaries, and interviews, spanning a period of about 40 years. Unlike, for example, Harriet Walter’s excellent Brutus and Other Heroines, there wasn’t much effort to frame the pieces in relationship to each other, or to the “present” of the volume’s publication. Although many of the ideas in it that I think of as classic Brook appear in one form or another throughout, the whole piece felt disjointed and lacking any through-line to speak of.
That said, I’m glad I read it, because it did have a few absolute gems that I’m still turning over in my mind. Pushing through the randomness was worth the effort, just to have these ideas.
One that I especially loved was this thing he said about how one “sets” Shakespeare. I often resist binding a production to a time or place, in part because I feel like when people get too excited about where/when they are setting a production, it indicates that they don’t trust Shakespeare carry the play. Sometimes it can be fun, and even revealing, to align a play with a particular historical moment, but more often than not, I feel like that limits Shakespeare. My favorite productions are ones that feel sort of no-time, no-place. Once upon a time, maybe. Like both times I’ve done Antony and Cleopatra, the costumes were inspired by the classical world, in an extremely loose sense, but not intended to have that kind of specificity. I’ve always struggled to explain this to people—that not having a “concept” in the sense of a flashy setting is a strong choice, not a refusal to pick something.
As usual, Brook said it better than I ever could:
The power of a Shakespeare play on stage stems from the fact that it happens “nowhere.” A Shakespeare play has no setting. Every attempt, whether supported by aesthetic or political reasons, to try to build a frame around a Shakespeare play is an imposition which runs the risk of reducing the play: it can only sing, live, and breathe in an empty space.
An empty space makes it possible to summon up for the spectator a very complex world containing all the elements of the real world, in which relationships of all kinds—social, political, metaphysical, individual—coexist and interweave. But it is a world created and recreated touch by touch, word by word, gesture by gesture, relationship by relationship, theme by theme, character interaction by character interaction, as the play gradually unfolds.
As a Shakespeare nerd, I often find myself confronted with people who want to insist that Shakespeare is fine, but is he really as good as everyone says? I think…yes. Not uniquely good, but better than the vast majority of artists. Ralph Cohen used to say that Shakespeare is the most underrated playwright in history, and I think there’s something to that. Every time I work on one of his plays, I make discoveries. I find yet another way in which his work is astonishingly good. Oftentimes, these discoveries would be impossible without the specific other actor in the room—someone whom Shakespeare could never have even imagined. Brook’s theory about why this is:
…Any single word, line, character, or event has not only a large number of interpretations, but an unlimited number. Which is the characteristic of reality. I could say that is the characteristic of any action in the real world—say, the action you’re doing now, at this moment, as we are talking together, of putting your hand against your head. An artist may try to capture and reflect your action, but actually he interprets it—so that a naturalistic painting, a Picasso painting, a photograph, are all interpretations. But in itself, the action of one man touching his head is open to interpretation. In reality, that is. What Shakespeare wrote carries that characteristic. What he wrote is not interpretation: it is the thing itself.
I’ve been engaged in a lot of debate, both inside my own head and with other people, over whether what we have been doing this past year is really “theater.” (and does that matter?). Brook would be clearly on the side of it not counting if people aren’t in a room together; much as I wish he was wrong, I have to agree. Streaming theater is something else.
What is of great importance is that the theatre phenomenon only exists when the chemical meeting of what has been prepared by a group of people, and is incomplete, comes into relationship with another group, a wider circle which is the people who are there as spectators. When that fusion takes place, then there is a theatre event. When the fusion doesn’t take place, there is no event.
I miss that fusion!
Another one—I’ve been watching a lot more TV and film this year (who hasn’t) because theater hasn’t been available. Although I’ve always known intellectually that theater and film are entirely different art forms, a year without theater has made me understand it in an entirely new way. Brook describes the thing that separates them beautifully—and also offers me language for when people inevitably ask me why I don’t direct film. Once, my neighbor who was a Lutheran pastor asked me this question. I told her it was for the same reason she didn’t become a rabbi.
…Theatre has the potential—unknown in other art forms—of replacing a single viewpoint with a multitude of different visions. Theatre can present a world in several dimensions at once, whereas the cinema, although it tirelessly seeks to be stereoscopic, is still confined to a single plane. Theatre recovers its strength and intensity as soon as it devotes itself to creating that wonder—a world in relief.
Other random things I learned: Brook got Salvador Dali to design a production of Salome in 1949 at Covent Garden. Thanks to The Internet, you can now see photos of that production, albeit not very big ones. It looks pretty wild (no surprises)!
Brook refers to The Tempest as “a Faustus in reverse,” and now I can’t stop thinking about that possibility.
Unlike me, Brook thinks Gordon Craig was the bomb. He writes about visiting Craig at the end of his life, and receiving wisdom from the great man (who, I hasten to add, designed very very few actual productions and got a lot of mileage out of being a Man with Ideas.)
Personally, I’m more of a fan of his sister Edie. Ask me about it sometime (this is why I am so fun at parties).