Peter Brook and Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream

With the Dream, Brook met head-on the dilemma of the theatrical researcher who also directs for the commercial theatre: the life of the theatre resides in the spontaneous interplay of actor, text and audience, but the business of theatre depends on the performance being repeatable, a reliably marketable commodity. Brook's Dream endeavoured to make a peculiar kind of appeal to the imagination of its audiences, but one main source of its success, apart from its novelty, was the prestige of his own name, another the growing popularity of one of his leading players, Alan Howard.

The eight-week rehearsal period began with two weeks in which the text was hardly used at all: two weeks of questioning, of exploration of ideas and theatrical techniques. Then came a month of playing with the unusual properties used in the fairy scenes and of physical exercises to prepare the actors for the acrobatics and circus tricks which the ideas of director and designer required of them. Brook decided to double four pairs of roles, thus reducing the size of his cast and facilitating the chosen method of rehearsal. The doubles were Theseus/Oberon (Alan Howard), Hippolyta/Titania (Sara Kestelman), Puck/Philostrate (John Kane) and Egeus/Quince (Philip Locke). The four fairies demanded by the text also served as stage hands.


After the opening, Brook's ideas about the Dream were widely publicised. These were characteristic: the need to interweave the actions involving fairies, 'aristocrats' (the lovers apparently included) and mechanicals; the difficulty of finding stage techniques to create the play's magic for a materialistic modern audience; a determination that the play dealt covertly with dark sexual passions; and the propositions that 'the core of the Dream is the "Pyramus and Thisbe" play' and that 'It's a sort of celebration of the theatre arts.' 1

A good general description was given by Rosemary Say, who also raised some of the points around which critical debate revolved. 'Peter Brook ....... is more determined than ever to compel us to take a creative part in his production. This time we are to be bullied into getting our imaginations to work. His method, lively and inventive, just gets by - particularly when he allows Shakespeare to take some part in the proceedings from time to time. The stage is white-walled and empty. An iron gallery runs round the top where those members of the cast not immediately taking part stand to look down on the play in the manner of overseers supervising a factory floor. Two trapezes hang on black cords and a vast red plume is splashed across the back wall. The actors spill on the stage, a garish mixture dressed in King's Road-type shirt and trousers, white silk cloaks and dresses of hard primary colours. Last come the artisans, a gang of workmen carrying planks, sandwiches and mugs of tea.' 2 For others, the set had different assoiations, among them 'circus big top', 'squash court', 'polar bear pit at the zoo', gymnasium, play-room - even the Elizabethan stage, with its tiring house-wall, two large upstage doors and gallery above and behind the stage.3

A widely admired feature of the performances was, once more, clarity: 'Never have I heard the verse more beautifully spoken, every line comes across as if the thought behind it had just been born in the actor's mind.'4 Even a tendency for verse, especially that of the lovers, to modulate into song provoked little strong dissent. Clarity was also the key to the fairies and the magic flower. No illusion was allowed, the means of the fairies' teasing of the mortals were as visible as the devices of 'Pyramus and Thisbe'. The programme quoted from The Empty Space: 'It is up to us to capture [the audience's] attention and compel its belief. To do so we must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin ' (pp. 108-9). A circus trick represented the magic flower: a spinning plate was passed from wand to wand by Puck and Oberon (and sometimes dropped\0 as they swung on the trapezes. The nearly continuous musical background was carefully orchestrated. The whole cubic space of the stage was filled , by action on the trapezes; by the hoisting up of Titania's feather-bed; by Puck on high stilts misleading Lysander and Demetrius; by the metallic coil 'trees' dangled on fishing-rods from the gallery by the fairies; and by the athletic running, jumping and climbing of the lovers. The lovers were denied lyricism, almost becoming the knock-about comics of the play. Hermia in particular was constantly in motion, being caught horizontally across doorways or snatched up by trapeze, indignantly crying 'Puppet!'. A still centre was afforded by the solemnity with which the mechanicals set about rehearsing their play. In performance, its effect was to provoke in the courtly audience not with laughter but a hushed involvement. Titania's encounter with Bottom, the climax before the interval, was remarkable for the physicality of her lustful assault and culminated in a triumphant and ithyphallic hymeneal procession, to the accompaniment of flying streamers and Mendelssohn's wedding march, while Oberon swung wildly above on his trapeze.

The allusion to Mendelssohn pinpointed the iconoclasm of the production. Not only was an older stage tradition left far behind but, for at least one reviewer, Shakespeare's text too. John Russell Brown 5 spelt out, in acid tones, the exact degree and detail of infidelity into which Brook's pursuit of that 'hidden play' so 'very powerfully sexual' had led him, demolishing point by point Brook's most extreme allegation about Oberon - that Shakespeare's King of Fairies is to be seen as 'a man taking the wife whom he loves totally and having her f******* by the crudest sex machine he can find'. 6

For the professional skill of the actors, no praise could be too high: they performed feats far beyond normal expectation (if hardly up to circus standard). They also succeeded remarkably in embodying Brook's idea of the play as having 'no set characters' and of each scene as being 'like a dream of a dream'. Reviewers frequently spoke of 'the actors' rather than 'the characters'. One crystallised the compelling quality of the performance with the words : 'The company seem not to act in it but to belong in it.' 7 Audiences left the theatre happy. So did most critics, though hindsight left some of them puzzled. The puzzles included the doubling. It undoubtedly contributed to the coherence of the performance-style, but the conception of Oberon and Titania as subconscious projections of the unavowed desires of Theseus and Hippolyta found little to sustain it in the text and other doublings, notably that of Egeus and Quince, were even harder to rationalise. The mating of Titania and Bottom seems even further from the sense of this play, so much concerned with the power of imagination rather than of passion. The end of the play was was another tour de force of production.


For the final entry of Oberon and Titania, Alan Howard and Sara Kestelman had to change roles on stage, removing the cloaks which identified them as Theseus and Hippolyta. During their speeches, the other actors, 'whistling softly', also removed their coloured cloaks, to reveal white clothes beneath, and moved slowly downstage, led by Oberon, intoning his final speech on a solemn monotone. The ritual solemnity of the moment (of which the speech gives no hint) was followed by Puck's epilogue. After it, as the prompt-book has it, 'all off stage and into auditorium, shaking hands with audience'. This last action, cued by 'Give me your hands if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends', rejected the overt sense of requesting applause

Audiences responded fairly well to the demand for reciprocity, though in doing so they were submitting to an intention imposed on them rather than expressing a spontaneous wish of their own. As the Scotsman reviewer drily put it, 'at times the players' easy chumminess with the audience throws up more barriers than it casts down'. 8 The solemnity of the ending, recognised as the touch of Brook, was an unsuccessful attempt to impose a meaning at odds with the obvious festivity suggested by the lines. This production, though verbally faithful to the complete text and clear in projecting it, ended by revealing that Brook's search for his 'hidden play' was proceeding not through Shakespeare's words, but beside or beneath them. Brook seemed to have grown tired of the constantly shifting suggestiveness of Shakespeare's language. Rejecting a style of 'Shakespearian acting' equated (perhaps unfairly) with the mouthing of verse in a 'poetry voice', he had reached an opposite extreme, where experiment and analysis led, not to renewed expressiveness but to rigid imposition of patterns of inflection and rhythm derived from rehearsal exercises rather than the spontaneous recreation of feeling in performance. Brook's choice of the Dream seemed, at last, to owe more to a preoccupation with acting technique than to a vital curiosity about Shakespeare's meanings. Its rejection of a sentimentalising stage tradition was dearly bought. By robbing it of human particularity, by reducing the fairies to subconscious projections of the humans, by rarifying the mechanicals into the Pirandellian heart of a mystery, Brook in his turn risked a sentimental reduction of the play, a confinement of its range and fantasy within a setting as modishly pretty and as thoroughly distracting as a whole forest of palpable-gross Beerbolm trees. 9

From: Peter Brook and Shakespeare, Richard Proudfoot. Printed in Themes In Drama 2: Drama and Mimesis (C.U.P. 1980).

1. See interviews for The Times (29.8.70); Plays and Players (October 1970). A Midsummer Night's Dream opened on 27.8.1970.

2. Financial Times (28.8.70)

3. Birmingham Sunday Mercury; Sunday Times

4. Jewish Chronicle (4.9.70)

5. 'Free Shakespeare', Shakespeare Survey 24 (Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp.133-4

6. Plays and Players (October 1970).

7. South Wales Evening Argos (31.8.70).

8. 29 August 1970.

9. See Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman (4.9.70).

Playing Shakespeare/Dream