All the World is a Stage. But not every stage is fortunate enough to host not one but two Brooks on the same day – Peter and Irina.
The other day, Irina Brook had her Dad over for a little chat among friends. Except, when your home is the Théâtre National de Nice, your Dad is theater legend Peter Brook, your spiritual ancestor is William Shakespeare, and you have 800 guests standing in rapt and awe, hanging on to your every word with nary a sound to be heard, it’s inevitably one of the country’s greatest cultural highlights of the year.
Peter Brook is to theater and film directing what Einstein is to science, or Pelé to soccer. One of those names inextricably linked to a particular specialty for generations to come. Is there anyone in the Western world who has not seen at least one of his productions, running the gamut from Shakespeare to Beckett via Mozart’s Magic Flute and Johann Strauss’ Salome? He wasn’t shy about pushing artistic boundaries, experimenting, and on occasions shocking the arts world. Not each and every one of his œuvres was received unequivocally enthusiastically but fans and critics alike agree that Peter Brook is a genius, as simple as that.
And this remarkable man, a lifelong Shakespeare aficionado, came to Nice this past weekend on the occasion of ShakeNice, the first international Shakespeare festival in France. The director of the Théâtre National, Irina Brook, introduced him with warm words….. and how could she not, she is introducing not only Peter Brook, the world’s greatest theater director, but her father. In her trademark style of heartfelt simplicity, she shares the emotional impact of this very special moment with the audience – an audience which may initially have harbored some reservations after Daniel Benoin’s departure from the TNN, but which was quickly charmed by Irina’s work which leans toward the poetic, the magical, and the dreamy.
When Peter Brook comes on stage, the air is filled with a sense of magic…. One of THOSE moments in your life…. You just know you are in the presence of a living legend. Almost 90 years old, yet with all the piercing mental clarity of his younger years, Peter Brook radiates art and culture….. but in his own, very down-to-earth, low-key way. And when he starts musing on Shakespeare, his words are as eloquent as they are simple.
He describes Shakespeare as more of a business man than a poet, one who for all his unequaled writing gift, had the capacity of producing commissioned works with a minimum turnover. A theater director could come to him and say, “William, I’m out of plays, I need one by tomorrow,” and the result was… a Hamlet, for instance. Another Shakespearian hallmark is to tell a story free of judgment, without the slightest personal point of view, but with an immense compassion and understanding for the human condition. He can make a villain human and likeable. The simplicity of his language, reflected in such very basic words like, “To be or not to be” makes him accessible and timeless. And so, playing Shakespeare, or mounting his plays, is tremendously liberating for an actor or director as they are free to interpret the great bard’s works in any way they want… they simply can never go wrong.
An enlightening and passionate talk. But Peter and Irina are not alone on stage. Sitting with them are Irina’s graceful and elegant mother Natasha Parry, one of Les Grandes Dames of acting herself, and Kristin Linklater, the ultimate authority of theater voice and body work, and trainer of actors of the caliber of Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Angela Bassett, or Sigourney Weaver. While the limelight is clearly on the charismatic Peter, these two women more than hold their own. Kristin and Peter discuss the importance for an actor to find liberation through his feelings, not his head…. “Our brains have billions of neurons but so do our bellies and our hearts. Acting has to come from here,” Kristin says, pointing to her belly. When an actor reaches that point, everything starts making sense. And again, it is Shakespeare whose work helps an actor get there, as it speaks to the heart rather than the brain.
Then another highlight. Natasha Parry reads two of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and everyone in the audience is under her spell, many moved to tears in equal parts by the beauty of the poetry and its masterful interpretation. You cannot help but remembering Irina’s words introducing her parents, “As a child, I was cradled in Shakespeare, it was practically my first language. I must have seen my father’s Midsummer Night’s Dream more than fifty times as a child, and the Tempest, and everything else.” You also think about what it must mean to grow up with this kind of literature, to experience it as a perfectly normal part of your childhood and youth, the same way that other kids are friends with Snowwhite or Spiderman. Magic… and you know it would have been impossible growing up in the Brook/Parry family without falling under its spell.
Seen from the outside, you also wonder, is it a blessing or a curse growing up “the daughter of”. In the case of Irina Brook, the answer is very clear.
Her beauty she inherited from her glamourous mother, and the artistic genius was handed down to her by her illustrious father. There was never a doubt in her mind as to her career choice, it would lead her down no other path than the artistic one. After spending her early adult years in New York, vacillating between acting studies at Stella Adler and living a “rock chick lifestyle”, she worked as an actress for several years but somehow never really fell in love with the profession. The big click in her head came when in the 1990s, and back in Europe, she switched sides and started directing. And suddenly everything fell into place for her. Slowly but surely she started making a name for herself. But it was almost impossible for her not to be labeled “The Daughter Of”. An honour no doubt, but even more of an obligation to live up to the big name while making a name and reputation for herself.
Mild-mannered as she is, Irina is just as tenacious, and so she kept going her own way. Her lifestyle between France, England, and the United States is as typical for her as her love for people from all sorts of backgrounds. Her world is a kaleidoscope of languages, ethnicities, and personalities, just like her childhood environment. Her own company, “Dream Theater”, features members from every continent on the planet, few of them native English or French speakers…. and they are all Irina’s “other family”.
And eventually, the reward came in the form of a call to head the prestigious National Theater in Nice. A tall order, following in the footsteps of Daniel Benoin who had led the House for 12 years. But Irina quickly translated her artistic vision into a program that in contrast to her predecessor’s is playful, poetic, multicultural, and “open to the horizon”, aiming to lure those across the thresholds of Thespis’ Temple who previously had never set foot into it. Her very first play she presented, “Peer Gynt”, was a fulminate rock and roll version of the Ibsen classic, played in English – a courageous enterprise in a French city, but one that would prove a home-run. Three festivals in this first season alone – including the first international Shakespeare Festival in France – bear testimony to Irina’s ambitions. And along with a diverse programme which features a mix of well-known plays and absolute discoveries, there are activities such as monthly readings, or precious gifts like an encounter with her family.
And halfway through her first season, the public’s response has shifted from skepticism to surprise and is now about to become a veritable love story between the Niçois public and the Director of the third largest stage in France. Irina has made a name and reputation for herself to the point that these days, while she is and always will be Peter Brook’s daughter, she is clearly recognized for her own artistic work. As if to prove what no longer needs to be proved, Peter Brook’s visit in the afternoon was followed by Irina Brook’s direction of Shakespeare’s Tempest – the perfect symbiosis of the father’s influence and his daughter’s skills.
Peter Brook adamantly argues the futility of saying, “What if Shakespeare were alive today?” And yet, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind: If he were indeed a contemporary of the Brooks, he would want both Peter and Irina to mount his works. They both “get him” as he was meant to be played.
During his talk about Shakespeare, Peter Brook mentioned King Lear, and the one word the play ends with…. repeated five times. And it was that very word which one of the guests referred to after the encounter that summed it all up, “It was an afternoon that shouldn’t have ended. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.”
Natja Igney is a senior global communications strategist with 1021 Global Communications Consulting. She has a particular interest in theatre and filmmaking.
Lead image via TNN Facebook page; photo of Irina Brook © RIVIERA BUZZ