The quartet of sleeping lovers lolled perilously upon swings suspended from the flies: Bottom lay motionless below seeming dead to the world. On another side of the stage, Oberon was waiting to catch a spinning plate on a pole tossed down by Puck from a high balcony. He missed, shrugged ('Take 342!') and tried again. In the front stalls of the Stratford auditorium Peter Brook was watching the fraught rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream calmly and without any visible signs of anxiety or doubt.
Brook surveys his actors like a subdued Moses bearing a hidden decalogue in his hands. He is directing the Dream unaided by the obvious pretty, pretty fairy enchantments. Props and movements have been shaped from a circus ring rather than a haunted wood. He doesn't worry when things go wrong - the actors must make their own magic. Mistakes are part of the performance, risks to be taken in the mastery of stage illusion.
During the second week of rehearsals, when the text had yet to be opened, the actors had improvised a happening around the theme of the Dream. 'It had extraordinary force and interest,' states Brook. 'But like all happenings it can never be repeated - it was there once and gone.'
The Tempest Roundhouse experiment notwithstanding, far from neglecting the text of a play, Brook's involvement in a work which interests him is total. For this Shakespeare comedy, his actors must never be allowed to forget that they are playing in the context of continual stage happenings, a world 'swift as a shadow, short as any dream'.
'After a long series of dark, violent, black plays I had a very strong wish to go as deeply as possible into a work of pure celebration. A Midsummer Night's Dream is, amongst other things, a celebration of the arts of the theatre. On one level the actors have to display a physical virtuosity - an expression of joy. Hence our production at Stratford involves acrobatics, circus skills, trapeze acts. Equally, certain parts of the play cannot be played without using a Stanislavskian sense of natural character development. There's the play we all know - and also a hidden play, a hidden Dream. That's the one the actors set out to discover for themselves.
'The Dream is a play about magic, spirits, fairies. Today we don't believe in any one of those things and yet, perhaps, we do. The fairy imagery which the Victorian and even post-Victorian tradition has given us in relation to the Dream has to be rejected - it has died on us. But one can't take an anti-magical, a down-to-earth view of the Dream. When I directed Titus Andronicus at this theatre sixteen years ago I was convinced that the play wasn't just a series of gory events but was a hidden play - the drama behind Titus was a ritualistic expression of a primitive cycle of bloodshed which, if touched, would reveal a source of immense, atomic power. In the same way, the interest in working on the Dream is to take a play which is apparently composed of very artificial, unreal elements and to discover that it is a true, a real play. But the language of the Dream must be expressed through a very different stage imagery from the one that served its purpose in the past.
'We have dropped all pretence of making magic by bluff, through stage tricks. The first step must be moving from darkness to daylight. We have to start in the open - in fact we begin in a white set and white light (the only darkness in the entire production occurs during the public encounters between Theseus and Hippolyta). We present all the elements with which we are going to work in the open. This is related to one of the key lines in the play when the question arises about whether the man who is going to play the lion should be a real lion or only pretend to be real. Out of this academic and very Brechtian discussion comes the formulation that the actor should say to the audience, 'I am a man as other men are'. That is the necessary beginning for a play about the spirit world - the actors must present themselves as men who are like all other men. It's from the hidden inner life of the performer that the magic, the unfolding possibilities of the play, must emerge. The core of the Dream is the Pyramus and Thisbe play which doesn't come at the end of a highly organised work just for comic relief. The actor's art is truly celebrated in this episode - it becomes a mysterious interplay of invisible elements, the joy, the magic of the Dream. The play can become an exploration, through a complex series of themes, of what only the theatre can do as an art form.'
Brook has several of his actors doubling, even trebling their roles in the play. Most notably Alan Howard and Sara Kestelman play both Theseus-Hippolyta and the fairy king and queen, Oberon-Titania. Was this for thematic or economic reasons?
'There were two motives. Firstly I wanted to do the play with a small group. There is a quite different quality of involvement with such a group than with a large cast where the actors come on, do a little bit and then disappear for the rest of the evening. When I directed the RSC experimental group in a version of Genet's The Screens we used a small group in which one actor played two, even three, roles. In this way you can take an actor much further - if he reappears in a different part during a performance. Close to this was the fact that in the Dream there are no set characters - the more you study the comedy it becomes a comment on what makes a dream; each scene is like a dream of a dream, the interrelation between theme and character is more mysterious than at first sight. Theseus and Hippolyta are trying to discover what constitutes the true union of a couple, what can bring about the conjunction whereby their marriage can become true and complete. Then a play unfolds like a dream before their wedding in which an almost identical couple appear - Oberon and Titania. Yet this other couple are in an opposition so great that, as Titania announces in language of great strength, it brings about a complete schism in the natural order. She claims that her dispute with Oberon is the cause of the whole world going awry. Thus on the one hand we have a man and woman in total dispute and, on the other, a man and woman coming together through a concord found out of a discord. The couples are so closely related that we felt that Oberon and Titania could easily be sitting inside the minds of Theseus and Hippolyta. Whether from this you say that they are actually the same characters becomes unimportant.'
I then asked Brook if he shared Jan Kott's view of the Dream - that far from being a 'celebration' the play contained a darker, more sinister exploration of love than is normally suggested. 'Most definitely. Kott wrote very interestingly about the play - though he fell into the trap of turning one aspect of the play into the whole. The Dream is not a piece for the kids - it's a very powerful sexual play.
'There is something more amazing than in the whole of Strindberg at the centre of the Dream. It's the idea, which has been so easily passed over for centuries, of a man taking the wife whom he loves totally and having her fucked by the crudest sex machine he can find. We had a long discussion about this at one point in rehearsals - we listed all the alternative animal-mates with which Titania might have been presented by Oberon. One realises that every other animal could have left Titania with a certain sexual nostlagia - it's a sort of romantic dream for a woman to be screwed by a lion or even a bear. The ass, famous in legends for the size of its prick, is the only animal that couldn't carry the least sense of romantic attachment. Oberon's deliberate cool intention is to degrade Titania as a woman. Titania tries to invest her love under all the forms of spiritual romance at her disposal - Oberon destroys her illusions totally. From Strindberg to D.H. Lawrence one doesn't find a stronger situation than that. It's not only an opposition between this ethereal woman and a gross sensuality that's coupled between Titania and Bottom - but the much darker and curious fact that it's the woman's husband who brings this about - and in the name of love! Yet there's no cynicism in Oberon's action - he isn't a sadist. The play is about something very mysterious, and only to be understood by the complexity of human love.'
If it is part of Peter Brook's intention to lead his actors through 'most of the schools of theatre that we know' during their performance of the Dream, it is also part of a preparation for a larger experimental programme which Brook is finally to begin in Paris this October. He has been trying to find a subsidy for his room in the French Ministry of Works, his 'empty space', for the past two years. As there are to be no public performances money has been difficult to find - but, of all places, a subsidy has finally come from Persia.
I asked Brook why so many directors were currently questioning the value of the work they were doing, uncertain about the state and future of our theatres themselves. Typically, he answered with confidence and faith. Unique among our directors, Brook has been questioning the meaning of conventional theatre for years. Equally strangely he has been searching for and inventing new forms on his own, as though bent on rescuing the art of the theatre for a future, unknown generation:
'All questions of this sort exist or disappear in relation to the level of intensity that is reached. A low level Shakespeare production sets up boringly archaic barriers for an audience - all that is true life is only dimly perceived. All that is lukewarm, passive, conventional in an audience is brought into play. At that level one has to question the meaning of a performance - to ask what social function it performs.
'Above that, there's another level where in place of a lack of an intention, an intention appears. With that intention, which may be political or social, comes a force, a clarity of purpose and a meaning. It might involve doing a play about a dock strike in the right place at the right time.
'Then you approach the next level, which includes very few writers (of which Shakespeare is the strongest and most unique example), when you suddenly discover an essential area where meanings between actors and an audience can be shared again, on a very different level to, say, a treatment, of a dock strike - but a meaning which is quite tangible. This form of intensity makes all questions of the play's relation to the past unimportant. It's happening now - whether the characters appear to be archaic or contemporary in their costumes and behaviour. All theatre begins when it is alive - all other theatre is dead. The theatre event that increases our power to perceive is something rare but, to my mind, to be cultivated at all costs.'
Peter Brook talks to Peter Ansorge.
Plays and Players, October 1970.