(Stuart Jeffries’s article appeared in the Spectator, 11/2.)

‘THE ONLY PLACE I CAN’T GET MY PLAYS ON IS BRITAIN’: PETER BROOK INTERVIEWED

Stuart Jeffries talks to the loquacious 94-year-old director about the parlous state of British theatre, Brexit and how he wishes more politicians were like Putin

‘Everyone of us knows we deserve to be punished,’ says the frail old man before me in a hotel café. ‘You and I for instance. What have we done this morning that is good? What have we done to resist the ruination of our planet? Nothing. It is terrifying!’

Peter Brook fixes me with blue eyes which, while diminished by macular degeneration that means he can make me out only dimly, shine fiercely. But for the genteel surroundings and quilted gilet, he could be Gloucester or Lear on the heath, wildly ardent with insight.

‘Think of Prospero. He’s a bad character, hell-bent on revenge for his brother’s wrong, a colonialist who dominates Caliban and the rest of the island. Only when he sees love growing between Miranda and Ferdinand does he learn humility and tolerance. He knows he deserves to be punished. And if we are honest — you and I, everybody — then we can say with Prospero “Me too”. But we are not that honest.’

I’d asked the 94-year-old theatre director to explain to me, as we sit knee to knee in South Kensington, the puzzling final words of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. Prospero, his books drowned, his charms o’erthrown, addresses the audience:

And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Brook seemed worth asking, since The Tempest howls through his life. It is 62 years since he directed John Gielgud as Prospero clad not in magician’s robes but half-naked, a hermit in hemp on a bare stage — Brook startling Stratford with his lifelong love of less. In 1990, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, his Parisian base since the 1970s, the walls flayed raw by time and the stage scattered with a carpet of sand, he conjured up theatrical magic again, stripping theatre bare to get to the play’s essence. And in his book on Shakespeare The Quality of Mercy, he reflects on the soliloquy.

What is Prospero on about, I ask Brook? ‘Oh, don’t put me on the spot!’ he wails. ‘I can’t tell you the meaning, all I can do is invite you to share the sense of wonder beyond words that those words open up. That is what theatre does.’

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