The curtain has just come down on the new TNN director’s first season. A retrospective of that which was, and what is ahead.
Living with the label of being the daughter of theater legend Peter Brook while making a career of one’s own on stage is not for the faint of heart. Following in the footsteps of a strongly backed three term director of one of the greatest French theaters, and making a success of it, is yet another formidable challenge. But Irina Brook, who does both, only sees tremendous opportunities in everything, and tackles any obstacle head-on. And she does it in style… the same style she stamped on her first season as the Director of the Théâtre National de Nice.
When Irina Brook was nominated to succeed Daniel Benoin at the TNN in 2014 after the end of his 12 year tenure, she came equipped with a fine resume. Growing up bilingually and biculturally in the Peter Brook and Natasha Parry family, she had soaked up theater osmotically. As a young adult, she got a top of the line education in the Thespian arts at the renowned Stella Adler Academy in New York City. She subsequently worked as an actress all over the world but wasn’t really feeling connected to what she was doing until many years later she had an epiphany: directing, not acting, was her true passion. And that was what she focused on from then on. Her eclectic body of work as a stage director spoke for itself, and eventually got her the master key to the TNN.
But what Irina didn’t have was experience in managing a theater, let alone a House as impressive as the third biggest French stage. She was excited but also conscious of the uphill battle that lay in front of her. Taking one of her favorite quotes to heart, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet,” she applied William Blake’s wisdom and her own way of doing things to develop a first season program which was less of a bow to established Niçois tastes and much more a reflection of who Irina is as an artist and a human. She wanted to bring “theater to the people, and people to the theater”, make it accessible to even those who so far had shied away from its thresholds. She has a particular love for poetic and playful theater – not lightweight by any means but not specifically catering to intellectual elitists either.
And as if to set a big exclamation mark, her season opener Peer Gynt incorporated everything dear to her: a funky, partly rock & roll/partly retro reinterpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s melancholic saga of an aging Nordic hero, played in English with French surtitles. Certainly not the traditional cultural fare the TNN faithfuls had been accustomed to. But…. going by the standing ovations the play received night after night, they ended up loving it. The play also made a short side trip to the Barbican in London where it was equally well received.
The fulminant début of the first TNN season of the Brook era was only the harbinger of things to come. Ensued a firework of shows as diverse as spectacular large-cast productions (Circo Equestro Sgueglia) and delightful discoveries such as Louis Fortier and Sophie Brech’s charming tragicomedy Tubby and Nottubby…. Creations like Hovnatan Avedikian’s much-noted Le Cercle de l’Ombre…. Classics like Les Caprices de Marianne, revisited by Frederic Bélier-Garcia or Peter Handke’s Toujours La Tempête…. Old-time TNN favorites like Shantala Shivalingappa (Play and Akasha), Mauro Gioia (Lostland), and Cyril Cotinaut (Trilogie Antique). Even Irina’s pre-predecessor Jacques Weber stopped by with Bernard-Henri Levy’s Hôtel Europa… It was an endless parade of actors, dancers, singers, magicians, musicians, acrobats, clowns…. a celebration of the best, the most whimsical and light-hearted that a Living Stage has to offer, with a carefully placed reflective note here and there for tempo and rhythm, but not a dull moment ever.
Among the three festivals, Le Printemps des Femmes featuring women authors, and a very bold venture, ShakeNice – the first time that not only Nice but France was hosting a festival around the English bard. From Dan Jemmett’s witty version of Macbeth or Atul Kumar’s Bollywood style Twelfth Night, Irina the Paris-born Brit had programmed a kaleidoscope of Shakespeare plays for every taste, winning over not only a nation of Molière lovers but also scoring immense points with the international community on the French Riviera which finally found its cultural tastes represented as well. Irina wants to gently open minds and horizons but above all, she wants to share what she loves.
Sharing. A big and meaningful word in Irina’s vocabulary. A culture of awareness, of gentleness, and of community is central to her personal life and philosophy. She adds a feminine note to whatever she touches, smoothes edges, lightens the heart. It was therefore only befitting that she would introduce that spirit not only inside but also outside the marble walls of the TNN. Nice got its first taste of it, quite literally, when Irina had pots of after-show soup served on the rug-strewn theater parvis throughout the three week run of Peer Gynt so that theater goers would stay on and get to know her…. and the visitors, astounded at first, quickly took to the new custom.
A couple of months later, Le Tout Nice was invited every Saturday to practice English Christmas carols, and soon enough even more than just a few intrepid French non-English speakers ventured to join in the fun. An old-fashioned Continental style Christmas celebration at the Emmaüs premises high above Nice? Of course! A trek down from there to the Negresco Hotel to sing carols in the Grand Hall? Mais oui! That’s Irina being Irina. Bringing people from all walks of life together, reaching across class and nationality with the ease of one who has hopped around the globe all her life. Her monthly Saturday afternoon readings and her “surprises” – which include high-caliber events like a public talk by her father Peter Brook, or the fun flashmob-style Peer Gynt excursion into the Promenade du Paillon – are yet another manifestation of her desire to connect with the public, which the Niçois quickly and enthusiastically embraced.
En passant, she also reformed the theater restaurant to now offer only sustainable, organic products and turning the dining room into a light, airy, playful space, a sphere somewhere between art and dream. And she kept her promise to reach out to underprivileged areas of the city, sending her resident actors and theater coaches to work with the youth in problem zones like Les Moulins and Ariane. All in an effort to show that theater is the great uniter and equalizer, the tape that can hold society together in difficult times.
Amazingly in all this, she still finds time to mount her own plays. Some of them are recreations of her previous work, like Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Shakespeare’s Sister (ou La Vie Materielle), which she revived after its first successful run off Broadway a couple of years ago. In that play, the public literally gathers around a kitchen table, watching five women discuss their lives, their dreams, their hopes, and their mild regrets, based on the texts of Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras. And the pot of vegetable soup they are cooking throughout the play, is later shared with the audience which is invited to join them on stage at the end. A play immensely representative of the Irina Brook touch…. philosophical, whimsical, communal, and typically centering on strong women comfortable in their skin, sensual and smart, but with a distinct earthiness.
As if all of that were not enough yet, she also has an annual rendezvous with opera on her schedule. This season, she spent several weeks in Vienna, creating Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Vienna State Opera, which again – Irina Brook style – had nothing remotely dusty and old-fashioned to it but became a lively, sexy, pink-feather-boa’ed reinterpretation of the timeless “Rich Old Man Marries Young Hot Woman” theme, set in a sleazy has-been night club. The Niçois, too, could share in the fun during a live projection from Vienna one night, and standing ovations and cheers in both theaters bore testimony to the public’s enthusiasm.
At the end of this first season, packed to the brim with exciting shows and events, to call Irina Brook’s presence a breath of fresh air in Nice would be an understatement. People sense that she is genuine and she has more than made good on her vision to “open the theater to the horizon”. Yes, there has been some criticism, chief among them that the Niçois would like to see more local companies and actors on the planks of their most prestigious theater in town. And certainly, there were those who preferred her precedessor’s more traditional style and went off to Antibes with him. But a whole new crop of theater lovers has emerged, one which before was rarely if ever seen in the Salle Pierre Brasseur or the Salle Michel Simon. Irina’s public is more readily open to experimenting, more willing to be surprised, more eager to participate, and more inclined to see the value of content and the quality of work rather than expensive productions.
This newly acquired audience also includes a much larger slice of the international community here on the Côte d’Azur who loves the fact that there are now occasionally plays in English or other locally resident foreign languages. In fact there is a great demand for even more of that. Irina would like to oblige but the massive cultural budget cuts on government level, which finances the TNN, left her war chest lamentably underendowed for any extravaganza – in fact she had less money to work with than some regional municipal theaters. But she has certainly shown that you can create some amazing art out of nothing. Her illustrious father once famously said, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” His daughter took notes, and is putting this concept into practice.
On June 20, the TNN hosted a summer fest at Emmaüs (pictured above), a dignified and playful counter exclamation point to a dazzling and successful first season under Irina Brook. The program for the 2015/16 season has not been announced yet, so patience must be exercised until early September. But one thing you can be sure of: this first year was only a warm-up. Even bigger, better, and more creative things are bound to happen at the Théâtre National de Brook.
Lead image © Tamara Triffez, courtesy Irina Brook; photo of TNN facade © Louis-Paul Fallot; Peer Gynt flashmob © Natja Igney; photos of TNN at Emmaüs © Gaëlle Simon