Friday 29 August 2008

a free space frees

Peter Brook's CICT has visited Australia on two occasions. For the first of these, in the late summer of 1980, the Adelaide Festival hosted a trilogy of performances: Ubu, The Ik and Conference of the Birds. Viewed as a sequence, this body of work was in reality one three-part play, a conceptual and thematic whole reflecting recurrent concerns and agendas. Ubu, an explosive conflation of Jarry's anarchic cycle, was a "rough" performance that bobbed along with the playful violence of a silent movie or a children's game. The Ik, a sparse study of the tragic demise of a Ugandan tribe, was played out by the brittle human debris of the material and spiritual wasteland Ubu leaves in his wake: a sad and bitter song of disillusion and defeat - the world as it is for so many. Finally, Conference of the Birds, an 800 year-old Sufi Pilgrim's Progress, described a magical and arduous journey in search of sense and self. Having recognised the implications of an Ik world, a group of birds set out to look for something more. A glimmer of optimism - the world as it could be, a possible future. Read in this way, the trilogy recounted an epic fable revealing humanity's greatest enemy to be humanity itself, yet rejected the despair of nihilism and even outlined a way forward. We shared a mythical narrative trajectory from the desolation of rampant materialism and egotism towards reintegration and healing: a utopianist journey towards life.

For its second visit to Adelaide, early in 1988, the CICT staged The Mahabharata, another trilogy synthesising aesthetic, ethic and thematic concerns. That year, the production was also performed in Western Australia, as part of the Festival of Perth. As he had in Avignon, Brook rejected conventional festival venues for The Mahabharata in favour of disused quarries: in Perth, the Boya Quarry, a spectacular granite amphitheatre in a network of abandoned quarries in the hills about thirty minutes east of the city, and in Adelaide, Anstey's Hill quarry, a luminous chalk bowl cut into the flank of a hill - also the site of the company's Festival performances in 1980. Brook freely admits that it was this devastated - and devastating - location that first gave him a taste for such spaces. Yet there are certain qualities common to almost all spaces Brook selects for productions, both inside and in the open air, and to a significant degree these qualities have their origins in the Bouffes du Nord, the CICT's Parisian base.

First of all, each quarry possesses a dynamic spatial configuration encouraging a direct, immediate and fluid relationship with an audience. In Brook's terms, they are therefore "living spaces". Although the configuration focuses upon a central playing area, each remains non-specific and open, rather than referentially closed: "free spaces", to borrow Brook's favoured term in recent years. At the same time, these are shared spaces - literally and metaphorically - all-embracing environments or frames that deny the artificial separations and hierarchies of conventional bourgeois theatre buildings. The amphitheatrical seating means that many members of the audience remain visible to each other, a part of the "spectacle" experience. Even during the performance, spectators are not in fixed positions, for Brook's scenography is filmic, shifting perspectives. These places endeavour to operate as interactive microcosms, perhaps even as temporary eco-systems. Places of contact and meeting. Places of both individual and communal experience. Brook's ideal remains one of "reuniting the community, in all its diversity, with the same shared experience", by finding theatre forms which enable a community to taste communitas.

Second, without for a moment denying the self-evident beauty of these spaces, their allure is almost Zen-like in its ascetic minimalism, starkness and economy of means. The apparent lack of decorative pretension - the quality of roughness - perhaps reinforces that celebration of both physicality and imagination, and the nexus between the two that Brook's theatre generates for audiences and performers. Bodies and senses are somehow massively implicated and engaged, and our awareness of them is amplified synaesthetically. The earth smells, the breeze tastes, light continually repaints the textured fissures of the striated rock face, which in turn both colours voices and acts as a sounding board for music and other acoustic elements. More immediately, the seating is invariably functional and far from luxuriant. Brook himself has declared that "in a theatrical experience, the least important element is comfort .... comfort deforms the vitality of the experience". Undistracted by the trappings of so many theatre buildings, one feels alert, available and present, and our imaginations are freed to assume an active role. It is then up to Brook's elliptical, interactive realism of suggestion onstage to engage our complicity and participation in our imaginations, inviting us to experience spectatorship as a celebratory and empowering action.

So each space seems to operate as an amplifier, enhancing and focusing receptivity. Furthermore, the spatial configuration itself is a kind of energy magnet, a sympathetic receptacle for simultaneously locating oneself in an immediate environment and a wider cosmic frame. A number of spectators at The Mahabharata in Perth remarked on the "peopled" or "haunted" feel of the Boya Quarry. It is surely no coincidence that it has been the meeting place for a local coven. Its genii locus are palpable. Here, the epic space becomes an omphalos, an earthing point for transformational activities and experiences, for the magical invocation of spirits - or performing, and energising performance. (In the Boya quarry, a remarkably flourishing tree is growing out of the scree at the base of the granite wall: a natural focal point and another literal element that assumes metaphorical dimensions in the spatial and theatrical context).

Third, connected to the above, these numinous spaces possess a quality of weathered, textured humanity, the locations themselves literalising the passage of time - the "fourth dimension". They are like silent witnesses, bearing visible traces of their pasts like stigmata. As former work places, they are worn and scarred, marked by life, or to borrow a phrase from a Shakespeare sonnet, places of "unswep't stone besmear'd with sluttish time". In the present, however, their former functions are redundant, anachronistic, now no more that a spectral presence. Any space's functional status as "place" shifts as it is redefined through time, until it becomes a kind of palimpsest. Here a dead space is reanimated, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a senescent industrialism, infused by play with the possibility of future histories, of a "Becoming". So we come to see space (and by extension other aspects of reality) not as static, but as process, in a state of flux: active, generative, interactive and, potentially, transformatory for us.

In this context, Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow's wonderful book On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time provides an illuminating account of the idea that whereas architectural "finishing ends construction, weathering constructs finishes". The two authors celebrate both the memory traces that remain of a building's "pasts" and the "possible futures" created by weathering after construction. They locate a building's "continuous metamorphosis ... as part of its beginning(s) and ever-changing "finish"". In other words, they suggest, "weathering brings the virtual future of a building into dialogue with its actual present, as both are entangled in the past". Their argument has great resonance in relation to the nature of Brook's chosen performance spaces.

Similar dynamics have pervaded all of Brook's productions since the inception of the CICT in the early seventies, particularly with reference to their dramaturgy and mise en scène. Structurally, they celebrate the free play of concentration and dispersion, settlement and diaspora. In The Mahabharata, for example, temporal and spatial dimensions were fluid, virtual and mobile, as open and free as they were in Elizabethan theatre. Time and space were endlessly redefined, effortlessly compressed or distended in an instant. Time was represented as pulsional and discontinuous. Twenty years passed because we were told they had. The moment of Bhishma's death was extended, linear time itself was decelerated and dislocated, through a hallucinatory use of something akin to the cinematic technique of slow-motion. As a director, Brook's consistent ability to animate the dynamics of space, and in particular the interstices separating figures in in non-Euclidean space, owes much to the "power of expansion" that Henri Matisse proposed as a prerequisite if paintings and drawings were to communicate. With room to breath, actions extend beyond themselves spatially, like ripples in a pond.

Brook's ideal of theatrical representation as a whole remains one of heterogeneity, plurality and flux - "suggestion", rather than what is fixed or closed. In The Mahabharata, objects and actors were invariably mobilised referentially. Bamboo screens could be animated and instantly redefined in play to become shields, shelters or death-beds. Actors as storytellers were free to step in and out of roles, inhabiting a free space of continuous slippage between illusion and disillusion; in this way, Bruce Myers played Ganesha playing Krishna in a story composed by Vyasa.

I believe that such exploration of representational forms entails a radical critique of inherited, theatrical codes and discourses ("dead spaces"). The fluidity and indeterminacy of Brook's aesthetics of suggestion in some sense disrupt and sabotage the received conventions of naturalism and its imposed ways of seeing. Such a working critique opens up and releases interrogative and utopian impulses ("free spaces") in relation to individual and social life, both within and beyond the theatre. As spectators, we are invited to negotiate and inhabit those liminal spaces - between, say, illusion and disillusion - dynamic spaces of make-believe. Spaces of potential, within which what Eugenio Barba has called "the dance of thought in action" can take place.

Fourth, these settings tend to be outside or on the fringe of the conventional cultural geography of a city, and most can only be reached with effort. In Perth, most spectators travelled by bus through the suburbs and into the hills, then scrambled up a heavily wooded path to the awesome quarry itself. This "extra-ordinary" journey away from the centre to the margins, an act of literal and metaphorical dis-placement as well as dis-orientation, became amplificatory in itself. Unquestionably, it served as a phenomenological shift of gear or rhythm change - creating expectation, animating the imagination, and cementing a sense of communitas without erasing subjectivity. It was an initiatory breach away from the familiar, an "ec-centric" itinerary that took us beyond the parameters of the everyday. We made a journey to start another 'journey'.

Finally, and crucially, each space's particular identity is articulated. As with his performers, Brook brings a sensitive quality of listening to a space and allows its voice to speak. And there is invariably a connection invited between the volume, mass and rhythm of a space as an environment and the performance itself. For Brook, it seems that the space itself must provide an account or expression of the core thematic drives of performance material; in this sense, any performance must be "topical" (i.e. intimately related to topos, place). Space and decor are synonymous in Brook's undecorated places. In the case of The Mahabharata in Australia, we were furnished with the perfect frame for a narrative about a civilisation caught at some indeterminate transitional mid-point between the dissolution of crisis and reconstruction. In turn, this frame mirrored a mise en scène that subverted and rewrote itself endlessly. As with the Bouffes, the marks of demolition or incomplete renewal were inscribed in the very texture of the quarry spaces. Furthermore, the form of these spaces allowed for a continual slippage between epic spectacle and intimate encounter - like the intercutting of longshot and close-up in cinematic montage - around which the performance as a whole was rhythmed.

In addition, these were elemental spaces for an elemental fable. As spectators we were constantly encouraged to allow a rich and amplified metaphorical life to emerge from concrete materiality and our interior imaginative responses. So, during all-night marathon performances in both Perth and Adelaide, the gusty winds with which performers struggled heroically assumed a special status. The battle onstage took on cosmic proportions, for the heavens themselves seemed implicated - and yet one never lost sight of the fact that this was just wind. It became impossible to distinguish between the artifice of illusion and "reality". Similarly, the synchronisation of the performance's ending with the first rays of dawn on the quarry stone heightened the sense of renewal and rebirth. Such a cyclical trajectory located the narrative as myth; it universalised, unlike the linear time-and-space of bourgeois naturalism, for example, within which chronological time insistently remains the corollary of Euclidean space. One felt this to be a new day for a new world, in which, perhaps, to remember Artaud's vision of "the highest possible idea of the theatre" as being "one that reconciles us philosophically with Becoming".

Indeed, all four elements were omnipresent, active and protean, mobilised as a scenographic base for the performance as a whole. The beaten red earth of the egg-shaped playing space - Mother Earth, source and end of all, as well as the storyteller's milieu in an Indian village; the free-flowing water of a river beside the back wall - the holy Ganges, the river of heaven, as well as the goddess ancestor or the protagonists; the enclosed water of a pool at the spectators' feet - fixed, sterile, a reflective surface to mirror the action, a place for refreshment and ritual ablution, a place to die; naked candle flame as generative transformation, invocation, purification, and illumination, and sputtering ball of flame as weapon, force of ignorance, threat to humanity; and finally, the air that we share with the performers and the sky above us - the creative and empowering spirit of inspiration, the wind of passion, the breath of life. In traditional Hindu cosmology, there are five elements in all: earth, water, fire, air or wind, and space (akasha). Each of them is linked with our five senses: earth - nose - smells; water - tongue - flavours; fire - eyes - colours and forms; air/wind - skin - touch; and space - ears - sounds. This perhaps explains the sensory impact of such an open-air staging. And in Australia, the elements seem very immediate, uninsulated, of palpable impact on the ways one leads one's life and sees the world. Here too space might be conceived of as a fifth element.

Perhaps above all, it is the liminalities and paradoxes of these impure spaces that appeal to Brook: "What is most important is this element of impurity ... For life is composed of all sorts of different aspects, which are massively mobilised by dynamism, contradiction and conflict .... We need to reclaim this kind of impurity in the theatre, because it is the very mark of life. When seen as a fundamentally positive value, it becomes the inevitable reference point". As I have already suggested, an enormous array of what appear to be binary cleftings inscribed in the places themselves are left unresolved, and as spectators we are encouraged to explore and inhabit the gaps, to live the contradictions. As a director who resolutely refuses closure at every level and celebrates the opening of possible worlds in performance, Brook has always favoured the idea of "both/and" over "either/or". For him, the universe is actually a complex and contradictory "pluriverse". Consistently, he has endeavoured to find ways out of fixed authored spaces of all kinds, to break through restrictive boundaries, thereby opening up a transgressive and multivalent space. Like dharma in The Mahabharata, a plural space of ambiguities, within which power is dispersed from any single authorial text, any closed singular meaning. I should stress that this is an active productive space of pleasure which empowers spectators as generators of meaning(s). As Roland Barthes reminded us, reading - or spectating - is writing.

In this way, at least on a superficial formal level, Brook appears to be a post-modernist (although in reality he is of course one of the great humanists of late modernism). For part of his project is to explore and prise open some of the cracks in the empty space of modernism which in turn become new spaces of possible futures - indeterminate, porous, dialogical, endlessly in flux. In his work, he takes us from a notion of empty space as void or tabula rasa - a blank page passively awaiting the inscriptions of some colonising or legitimising "author", part of the Enlightenment myth of order prevailing over chaos - to a deconstructivist notion of free space as the site of the play of potentiality and dynamic plurality, tirelessly self-subverting and reconfiguring. Even the titles of Brook's two major books describe this trajectory, i.e. from the "empty space" to the "shifting point". Brook's "free space", therefore, becomes the site of a radical re-cognition and re-orientation.

So, in this instance, the quarries are both natural, found spaces ("raw", in Levi-Strauss's terms), and at the same time artificial reconstructions ("cooked"). Even the rock face in Adelaide was retouched with ochres to alter the space's tonality and texture. They are both rural and urban, often the city's lights remaining visible in the distance. They are both abandoned, redundant, out of use, and yet reclaimed, functional. Work places and play-grounds or playing-fields. Old and new. Demolished and renovated. Enclosed and open. Bounded and unbounded. Private and public. Intimate and epic. ‘Rough’ and ‘holy’. And centrally, in a mythical teatrum mundi within which microcosm and macrocosm are indissolubly intertwined, these spaces are both literal and metaphorical, encouraging spectators to be the site of a dynamic interplay of interiority and exteriority, subjectivity and objectivity. Such irresolution can generate a heterogeneous density of experience that startles, awakens and liberates. A free space can free ...

In an Australian context, the metaphorical resonance of quarry settings is further heightened by a connection with Aboriginal cultures that Brook has chosen to make explicit. The existence of these cultures is the focal point of his interest in Australia, making it a "land of origins", a "source". During the CICT's visit in 1980, he travelled to a number of Aboriginal communities in the "red centre" near Alice Springs. Subsequently, he invited tribal members from remote desert settlements in the Idulkana and Papunya regions to performances of the trilogy in Adelaide. In this context, the quarry setting offered a concrete image of different cultures' relationships to the same environment.

Brook conceived of these communities as representing a space of potentiality to the company and to white liberal audiences in general; at the time, he described them as "a very important example of what could be". Their presence demanded a recognition of qualities under direct threat from the encroachments of so-called civilisation. A recognition of forty thousand years of cultural tradition, partially intact despite the genocidal regimes of invaders and continuing institutional disempowerment, which still constructs Aboriginal culture and history as blank space; of an organic bond between the cyclical and plural time-spaces of myth and the everyday, between life and art; of a more sensitive and symbiotic relationship with the environment. For Brook, these guests offered a mirror to The Ik, now a new text with an amplified energy when played before such an audience in this gouge slashed out of the earth. One was invited to link the Aborigines' imposed deracination from tribal lands and sacred sites with the Ik claim to a life in union with their environment and its holy places: "We would not exist without the mountain, and the mountain would not exist without us ...."

For traditional Aboriginal cultures, environment constitutes a series of texts or a book. Their myths of creation, sacred teachings and cultural histories are inscribed in the land itself. Its features record, Braille-like, the exploits of pre-historical ancestors, which can be endlessly read and re-animated in the present. Landmarks are "nothing less than the bodies of the totemic beings, or items connected with them, transformed into individual waterholes, trees, sandhills, ridges, and other physiographic features, as well as into rock alignments and sacred rock-piles". By journeying through these free spaces, law and lore can be re-made and re-membered through narrative song cycles - psychogeographical itineraries that map cultural spaces and identities, pasts and possible futures: landscape as "inscape".

In this light, The Ik became an overtly cautionary tale, a vision of the dangers of obliging any people of ‘quality’ to shed that quality. Inevitably, The Mahabharata simmered with more parallels and intertexts. Performances occurred within (literally) the space of the dominant culture's exploitation and desecration of indigenous peoples' holy books. Yet, as I have tried to suggest above, the transition from work location to "play-ground" opens up new, transgressive spaces.

Later that year, in an impassioned article for The Sunday Times in London, Brook posed a series of questions that - like the land rights issues from which they emerged - still hang in the air, thirteen years on:

‘Will the Aborigines also be destroyed? Or will they win their legal battles? Will they be preserved and assimilated? Will they survive in isolation as anthropological curiosities? Will they find a way of integrating their traditions into a new way of life? A young Australian who has lived with the tribes in the North tells me of the beauty and complexity of their customs, of the force of their spirituality. “The Aborigines never meet white people of inner quality”, he says. “They want to know if such people exist”. Back to the other Australia, the Australia of beautiful cities, of generous friendly people, very appreciative of our performances. One of them says, “You're lucky! I've lived here all my life and never seen an Aborigine”.

In the intervening years, thankfully Aboriginal peoples have assumed a heightened "visibility" for all Australians, although little has been resolved. In 1993, the Australian High Court passed the historic Mabo legislation, which formally recognised "native title" and, to the horror of farmers and mining companies, particularly in Western Australia, overturned once and for all the notion of terra nullius upon which all former title legislation was founded. So the "empty space" was inhabited after all ... It remains to be seen exactly what this legislation means in practice. Since the election of a Liberal government in 1996, a government seemingly intent on undermining reconciliation processes as symptomatic of Labour's 'political correctness', Mabo is under threat.

In the middle of the CICT Mahabharata, Dharma posed a number of initiatory riddles to his son, the Pandava prince Yudhishthira, during his exile in the forest. Part of their exchange went as follows:

Dharma: "Give me an example of space".
Yudhishthira: "My two hands as one".

And this brings us to the real challenges of the spaces explored by The Mahabharata in an Australian context. In theatre, what is invisible can be made visible, the seeds of fragmentation critiqued and at the same time difference celebrated. In the utopian free spaces of play at least, coercive and delimiting ways of seeing can be subverted. Re-making our histories means re-visioning and re-making ourselves. Only then can theatre once more become necessary, as social and spiritual meeting place. For all Australians, "our two hands as one". A free space frees.

Unpublished essay, originally written in Perth, Western Australia, 1993.

Photograph: Julio Donoso - The Mahabharata at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris, 1987.

See also David Williams (ed.), Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, London and New York: Routledge, 1991; and David Williams (ed.), Peter Brook: A Theatrical Casebook (2nd edition - revised and updated), London: Methuen, 1992; and my essay ‘Assembling our differences: bridging identities-in-motion in intercultural performance’, in Simon Murray & John Keefe (eds), The Physical Theatres Reader, London & New York: Routledge, pp. 239-48.


Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double (trans. Victor Corti), New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Brook, Peter. "Les lieux du spectacle", L'architecture d'aujourd'hui, October-November 1970.

----- "Espaces pour le theatre", Le Scarabée International, Summer 1982.

----- "Lettre a une étudiante anglaise", in Timon d'Athènes (translated and adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière), Paris, CICT, 1978.

----- "The Living Theatre of the Outback", The Sunday Times, 17 August 1980.

Carrière, Jean-Claude. The Mahabharata, London: Methuen, 1986.

Gould, Richard A. Yiwara, Foragers of the Australian Desert, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Mostafavi, Mohsen and David Leatherbarrow. On Weathering: the Life of Buildings in Time, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993.

No comments: