At the end of the Brook era at the Théâtre National de Nice, the whimsical artist is leaving behind much more than just fond memories of remarkable theatre shows
It seemed like only yesterday when news broke in 2014 that Irina Brook had been named director of the French Riviera’s most prestigious theatre. In the course of time, five years is nothing, barely enough to build a reputation or influence society on a larger scale. And yet, when La Brook leaves the Théâtre National de Nice of her own volition at the end of this season, she will be able to look back at her time… maybe not with undiluted pleasure but certainly with a gratifying sense of accomplishment.
The Genesis of the Brook Years
The stars were not exactly aligning in her favour when Irina Brook arrived in Nice to take over the reins of the third largest House in France. She was not a unanimous choice, it has to be said. A cacophony of voices, led by mayor Christian Estrosi, questioned then-French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti’s wisdom in appointing the Paris-born-but-British-to-the-core artist to the prestigious post. Irina Brook had no management experience, she openly professed her love of Shakespeare in the land of Molière, and most importantly, she was instantly pegged “the daughter of…” – her father being the venerable Peter Brook, dubbed the Living God of Theatre. While Irina was already a respected artist – having played and directed in New York, London, and Paris among other high-caliber addresses – too many locals were deeply attached to her predecessor Daniel Benoin and what he represented.
Benoin was, and still is, a theatre manager after the Niçois establishment’s own heart… A director who gets his inspiration from what’s happening in Paris, with a Rolodex that gives the Who is Who in Showbiz a run for its money. A clever businessman with quite a few influential contacts in the political and cultural landscape. But after twelve years at the helm of the TNN, his tenure was up for good, and besides, he already had other projects on his mind. He was building anthéa, a 2,000 seat theatre in Antibes, just up the road from Nice, which he was also going to head.
And that very fact would prove both a blessing and a curse for Irina Brook.
The wind of change is something most people fear, and all the more so in a conservative, tradition-bound environment like the Côte d’Azur. Here, families with Italian surnames are considered the true Niçois – the Nizzardi whose roots go back to pre-1860 when Nice still belonged to Italy. With their ingrained aversion of anything that appears to be a novelty, a fresh idea, or a different world view, they are notoriously wary of the ballet of transient foreigners coming and going.
Along comes Irina. Fresh-faced, soft-spoken (if equipped with an iron will), and with an aura of hippie rocker chick. The local bourgeoisie eyes her with trepidation. “What on earth is she up to?” God beware, she could be one of those tree-hugging, globalist, feminist peaceniks!
Well, turns out she is all of that and more, but in the gentlest way imaginable. With the admirable simplicity that is her trademark, she announces her first seasonal programme… in which we find a brand-new festival dedicated to Ye Olde Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon; her declared intention to bring together people from all walks of life and make theatre accessible to all, including, gasp! the young generation; and to top it off, a more or less open agenda to do something positive for the martyred planet. Treason! Revolution! C’est pas Niçois ça!
While those who prefer classic French theatre with the Benoin signature flock to Antibes where anthéa conveniently opens right around that same time, a few curious souls venture to see the opening play of the first Brook season. And of all unlikely authors, she picks Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt to set the tone. Peer Gynt! A Norwegian tragedy, played in English! The public is flabbergasted… but still intrigued in the same way you are drawn to a train wreck.
“Great Things are done when Men and Mountains meet”
But Peer Gynt turns out to be anything but a train wreck. It’s a… – yes, it’s fair to call it a triumph, albeit it a hard-earned one. Irina’s “Dream People”, the multilingual, multicultural company of actors, musicians, and dancers from every continent she had already been grooming in Paris for years, are joined by superstar Ingvar Sigurðsson, Shantala Shivalingappa and other high-caliber guests, and turn the somber story into a rock musical… and a sensation.
Two songs by Iggy Pop and twelve poems by Nobel prize laureate Sam Shepard add a level of sophistication to the already stunningly overhauled play that elevates it to a complete and utter novelty in this venerable temple of Thespian art that is the Théâtre National de Nice.
Spectators who came to witness a “told you so!” failure, re-emerge transfixed, hurrying home to tell everyone in their entourage to run and see the show. 17 packed nights in a row, enough said. And right thereafter, Irina’s play is off to the Barbican in London for a week – is there a more prestigious theatre address in all of Europe? – to enthuse the English public. What no one knew yet at that time was that Peer Gynt proved to be so immensely popular that it would become an annual TNN staple.
Irina’s first programme (2014/15) is…. well, different from what the Niçois public is used to. Gone are the Parisian headliners and the French classic authors. Her ambitious goal is to dust off the theatre top to bottom, inward and outward, and chase out any resident ghosts. This means a different tone. Plays with a more whimsical, poetic style, such as Tubby and Nottubby or Lostland, which tell stories of humans and humanity, appear on the playbill. And Shakespeare! Shakespeare in France!! A whole Shakespeare festival every year!!!
Irina also makes it clear that while she has to business-manage one of the most important French theatres, she wants to direct at least one play and an opera every year. In her first year, she mounts Shakespeare’s Sister, which she had previously shown at La MaMa in New York: five women debate, sing, dance, and cook their way through an adaptation of texts of Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras. Live cooking on stage with panache and a good dose of sex appeal – trust Irina to pull it off. And in the same year, her opera of choice is Don Pasquale with none other than the brilliant Juan Diego Flores.
“Bringing Theatre to the People, and People to the Theatre”
At the end of Season 1 under Irina Brook the road map for the years to come is on the table. And by now, Nice is firmly divided into two camps. You either love her style or you hate it. There is no middle ground, no indifference. Those who are indignant that the sacrosanct institution of highbrow, elistist “thé-âââtre” is being cheerfully dismantled, take refuge in Antibes where the director and his programme are more predictable. But their exodus makes room for a whole new audience – those who have previously had trepidations to pass the thresholds of a theatre, now realize that it could actually be quite fun.
Encouraged by the second group’s enthusiastic response, Irina is increasingly emboldened to share some more of the culture and issues dear to her heart. She gives women in the performing arts a stage (quite literally), she institutionalizes festivals, she takes theatre on the road to schools, prisons, and rural communities, and she starts building up a new company of young and immensely talented local actors by the name of Les Eclaireurs. Soon, Marjory Giesbert, Kévin Ferdjani, Issam Kadichi and Irène Reva would become the pride and joy of Nice and the TNN.
The Joan of Arc of Climate and Environment
Prior to Irina Brook’s arrival in Nice, topics such as climate change, sustainability, and organic food had never caused much loss of sleep for the locals. For herself all the more so, though. She who has lived in Anglo-Saxon countries where these issues are front and center… she who needs her retreat to nature like a flower needs water… she who is the mother of two adolescents…. she is keenly aware of the urgency of global problems with an immediate impact on life of Earth, and takes it upon herself to “Shake Nice” in more than just the cultural sense.
Convinced that the medium of theatre is a perfect tool to convey her message, she embarks on an eco-warrior mission to draw attention to the lamentable state of our planet’s health. She does so by presenting plays centered on these topics, by turning the theatre bar and café into a Monsanto-free zone, and by hosting market-like events in the TNN auditorium. “The blasphemy! Turning our Thespian temple into a fairground!” The establishment is indignant.
Reaction is swift. Even more of the “têtes grises” who have already felt sorely excluded, wander off to Antibes. Sale of season tickets there soars while the TNN is struggling to make ends meet. Serious cutbacks of the national culture budget also contribute to dwindling funds. But undeterred, Irina makes do with what little meager means she has and mounts joyful, exuberant, lighthearted plays like her unforgettable Tempête – what else but another Shakespeare… “His last play contains secret hints that make us understand the essence of our humanity”, she says. She doesn’t even need a theatre to play… like her father, she can simply take any bare space and declare it a stage, and pull off something quite amazing.
All of that is of course way too progressive for Nice. But as the saying goes, “you recognize pioneers by the arrows sticking out of their back”… There are more than just a few of them deeply planted in Irina’s back but she marches on, not paying heed to the voices around her, not wavering in her convictions. Over the next seasons she is on a perpetual mission to balance her wish for a “Theatre for All” – even if that does mean making some concessions to lovers of classic stage art and authors – with her quest to open minds and horizons.
Inspired by Hamlet’s words, “Why, what should be the fear? I do not set my life at a pin’s fee,” and unfazed by criticism, she chooses to tenaciously pursue her course with her hallmark charm and friendliness. She continues to engage all walks of life – whether that’s teenagers practicing hip-hop dance on the lifeless concrete square outside the cold marble structure that is the TNN, families who find a remarkable selection of plays for children as young as toddlers, the residents of marginalized neighbourhoods, or busy little worker bees at factories, when Les Eclaireurs perform right in their canteen or meeting hall. And she works with local companies like Miranda, out of Théâtre de la Cité, to create a…. nope, not another Shakespeare, but a Molière adaptation she calls Dom Juan Et Les Clowns.
Slowly but surely she builds up a faithful followership of those who are receptive to her message. Passionnement TNN, a group of local entrepreneurs and business owners led by real estate mogul Benjamin Mondou, rallies to support her. Together they come up with novel ideas, and in what must be the coup of the century, manage to make the stars of local football (soccer) club OGC Nice recite Shakespeare…
A Page is Turning
Irina’s outstanding contribution to culture and society is nationally recognized. In 2017, her contract is renewed for another three seasons. She is even awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres medal, a national distinction reserved for those with outstanding merit in the cultural field to their name. But Nice remains polarized over Irina Brook.
Spending so much energy on the uphill struggle trying to reconcile philosophical wants with economic needs and the necessity to keep Town Hall and Paris happy so that subventions keep flowing, takes a toll on anyone, let alone a thoroughbred artist who has little passion for management or political machinations. The restraints and pettiness of “the business of theatre” are not for Irina. Being “the boss” is not her thing. She is a creator, not a business woman.
Midway into her fifth season, and a year prior to the official end of her current contract, she makes a shock announcement. She will leave the TNN.
Too much Chocolate Cake
While this decision seemingly comes entirely out of the blue, it must have been the process of a long and painful process of soul searching. Irina may be a free spirit, a wandering and restless soul… but no one just ups and leaves a stable position unless pressure outweighs a solid paycheck, perks and benefits. And for her, it does. Her creativity is getting crushed. Not just by Nice and its peculiarities, or the business management of the TNN, but also by what she calls “an overdose of theatre”. She who has spent a lifetime on, behind and in front of the planks that mean the world, needs a breaks from it all. “When it gets to the point of having to be at the theatre every single night because it’s your job, it becomes too much. It’s like eating chocolate cake all the time.” She needs to breathe, she yearns to leave the confines of a stagnant environment, and she hopes that by putting distance between her and the world of theatre, she will find her authentic, and artistic, self again.
In February 2019, just after the announcement, she sets off on a seven week trip to Japan. And Japan – where centuries-old and sacred tradition seamlessly intermingles with progressive and utterly modern everyday life – revives, reinvigorates, and rejuvenates Irina’s core, puts her back in touch with her roots, helps her purify herself from a toxic environment. Here she finds confirmation that her decision to bid Nice farewell before the end of her tenure was the right thing to do. A courageous move, but fully coherent with her values of being true to oneself… the dictum she so favours in literature, and that recurs from Peer Gynt to Hamlet.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
– Hamlet (1600–01), Act III, scene 1
Everyone now wants to know what she is up to. Will she stay in the South of France anyway? Will she move to Japan where she reconnected with her spirit, or to London to be close to her children who by now are now off to university, or go back to her beloved old home in rural Massachusetts? Or somewhere completely new and different?
All this is still open. Irina Brook is a citizen of the world, not of a particular country. Her vision is broader than that of most people, especially those who have never led her lifestyle of meandering across the globe. But as if to give Nice a farewell gift to remember, she is going out with a creation of her own, based on… what else… Shakespeare. Her remarkable – no, make that “spectacular” – adaptation of Romeo et Juliette, presented by Les Eclaireurs, the company she birthed and raised in Nice, and starring her supremely talented, 16 year old daughter Maïa Jemmett in the female lead is one to remember forever. And as befits an artist who is called back to the curtain, her mini version of the Bard’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, titled “Songe” is bowing out the Brook era in style.
Gorgeous, glorious, beautiful Nice has an underbelly as Irina Brook had to find out the hard way. It is not her who failed Nice, but Nice who failed her because this city is maybe not quite ready yet to embrace a worldly, forward thinking, wandering spirit like her. But whether you can identify with her style or not, no one can deny the impact she has had on Nice, shaking and awaking it, re-energizing it despite itself. It is to be hoped that her successor, whoever he or she may be, can carry on the artistic and ideological momentum that Irina Brook has kicked off and for which this exceptional artist with her thoroughly humanitarian philosophy deserves standing ovations.
Thank you for all that you have done for Nice and the TNN, Irina. RIVIERA BUZZ was the first magazine you gave an interview to, newly arrived here in 2014, and we have enjoyed accompanying your years here. We sincerely wish you well for your future, wherever it may take you.
Lead image and Théâtre Vie photos by Gaëlle Simon; photo of TNN courtesy Louis Paul Fallot; final photo courtesy Jean-Luc Gagliolo; all other photos courtesy Irina Brook / TNN