Peter Brook's 11 and 12 marks director's return to the Glasgow and Tramway he transformed
The director who raised the bar for Glasgow’s Year of Culture is returning to the city for the first time in 13 years. At his base in Paris, Peter Brook tells Mark Fisher why he is delighted to be back
Let’s start with some history. Throughout the 20th century, Glasgow was as dangerous as it was dreich. You couldn’t leave your tenement slum without being stabbed. It was a bonus if you avoided a head-butting. A trip to the steamie or even to your outside cludgie involved a perilous journey past bampots and razor gangs. It was pure mental, so it was.
But then came 1990 and the city council reinvented Glasgow as a city of culture. Overnight, it exported the violence to Edinburgh where Irvine Welsh had just bought his first biro. Now everyone in the Dear Green Place was drinking cappuccino, doing yoga classes and hanging out with graphic designers. The hard men renounced their ways and bought season tickets to the GFT.
And the man primarily responsible for all this was Peter Brook. The celebrated theatre director and author of The Empty Space had been invited in 1988 by Bob Palmer and Neil Wallace, the architects of Glasgow’s cultural bonanza, to check out a possible location for The Mahabharata, his nine-hour epic based on the Sanskrit story of mankind. He agreed to cast his eye over a space that had the same dilapidated charm as the Bouffes du Nord, the 19th century theatre he has run in Paris since the 1970s.
That place was the former Museum of Transport in the Southside, an all but derelict building ear-marked for demolition. As he told The List at the time, Brook liked the way it was ‘somewhere where the earth on the ground fits naturally with the walls; somewhere with a feeling that life has gone through it’. With a £75,000 makeover and the construction of a brick wall on either side of what would become the playing area, it would be a good match for his own crumbling theatre.
‘We were playing in Zurich and after the first performance two very vibrant people came up to me,’ says Brook today, looking more the wise old sage than ever as he approaches his 85th birthday. ‘They said, we in Glasgow have a space and we can convert it, not because we have money, but we can get a band of really enthusiastic students and people who will come and help us in the spirit of what you’re doing. Glasgow was a really marvellous discovery.’
The arrival of Brook’s international company was the first signal that Palmer and Wallace planned to make their year of culture a world-class occasion. Events would take place all over Glasgow during 1990, of course, but it was the renamed Tramway that would generate some of the biggest waves as it played host to Robert Lepage, the Maly Theatre, the Wooster Group and other heavy hitters. In 1988, in one of its more prophetic moments, The List wrote: ‘It would be wonderful to think that Brook’s production will leave behind it a permanent exciting new space – something entirely lacking in Scotland – that could become a centre for this sort of brave, experimental work.’
That is exactly what happened and, for many years, the Tramway was also Brook’s home from home in the UK. ‘In The Mahabharata you had a conflict in which gods and ordinary people come together and this undercurrent of something mythical,’ he says, sitting in an appropriately spartan office in the Bouffes du Nord. ‘One of the best places we ever played in was Glasgow for that reason. We found that in Scotland, consciously or unconsciously, all that goes back to the hills, the mists, the mythical tradition, is still alive, which it isn’t in the south. In Glasgow the audience would roar with laughter in an open way and a second later would be listening intently.’
After the majestic sweep of The Mahabharata, which managed to be both elemental and breathtaking, he brought La Tragédie de Carmen in 1989 and, in 1990 itself, a francophone version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play he had first staged at Stratford in 1957 with some actor called John Gielgud. ‘The best big show is less interesting than what can appear if you pare it down to the bone,’ he told me when I met him in Paris that year, a sentiment that sums up the drive for simplicity and spareness in all his later work.
It is a line that connects shows as varied as Debussy’s Impressions de Pelléas, the Oliver Sacks adaptation The Man Who … and Samuel Beckett’s Oh Les Beaux Jours. When trying to identify the distinctive qualities of a Brook production, it is easiest to describe the absence of directorial intrusion, the stuff that is left when all else has been stripped away.
That is the case with 11 and 12, the show that marks the director’s return to the Tramway for the first time in 13 years. The play is adapted from a true story from French-occupied Mali, where a long-simmering conflict intensified between Sufi factions over how many times to recite a sacred prayer. The difference between saying it 11 times and 12 times might sound insignificant, but it led to a major tribal conflict which intensified when the French took sides. For Brook, though, it is really the story about Tierno Bokar, a Sufi master who pursued the values of forgiveness and tolerance to great personal cost.
‘I don’t feel my job is staging or directing, but it is helping to bring into the open, to make visible something which otherwise would remain buried,’ he says. ‘But why do you do it? Because one feels it is right for this moment. What touches us now is audiences saying that to feel something that can touch one beyond prejudice is important. I’ve got no beliefs that one can change the world, but believe that for 500 people in one night something can be touched.’
11 and 12, Tramway, Glasgow, Tue 30 Mar–Sat 3 Apr.
Tramway's track record
Peter Brook’s relationship with the Tramway has been long and varied
‘It is an exciting entertainment, but it deals with all manner of human, social, important questions,’ Brook told The List about his epic marathon. ‘It is about life and about living and about war.’ It was also about nine hours long.
La Tragédie de Carmen
Brook was convinced we had lost sight of the clarity of Prosper Mérimée’s original story in the fog of elaborate staging and full orchestration for Georges Bizet’s opera. He fielded just 16 musicians and focused on the power of the acting.
Even for those with a poor grasp of French La Tempête still clearly showed our need, in Brook’s words, for ‘compassion, pardon, forgiveness, love, freedom’.
Impressions de Pelléas
A boil-in-the-bag Pelléase et Mélisande, distilled from Debussy’s three hours down to 90 minutes with just two grand pianos and six singers. It was sensitive and achingly beautiful.
The Man Who …
Oliver Sacks described the neurological crossed wires that could make patients talk in a barrage of poetry or lose awareness of their own limbs in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Brook took these case studies as the raw material for a theatrical investigation into the wonders of the mind.
Oh Les Beaux Jours
Brook’s wife, Natasha Parry, took centre stage in the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days that remained faithful to the playwright’s vision.