Learning from the Masters: Peter Brook on Shakespeare

It is a very sad error for players and directors to show Lear in the first scene as a feeble old man already in his dotage.

How often do we forget as performers that the audience meets us in our first scene for the very first time?
They don’t know what we’re about to do, they don’t know how the play ends. (Well, I’m probably quite wrong in many cases, especially in a post that mentions Shakespeare, but in this case, the audience arrives ready to meet us at the beginning of the play, not the end.) It’s difficult not to judge a character we’re playing, especially if they’re about to embark on a journey as tumultuous as Lear’s.

When creating a character, you must have its arc very clear. Where are they emotionally at the beginning of their story and where are they at the end? You can almost work backwards. If, on a scale of 1 to 10, by the end of your piece they’re an unhappy 9, you can’t start their story with them being an 8, or else you will have almost nowhere to go. (Notice that I mention the beginning of their story, not the play, as you might be playing with structure and time.)

Any scene in Shakespeare can be vulgarised almost out of recognition with the wish to have a modern concept.

I’ve added this quote here as a reminder that we shouldn’t be obsessed with the idea of creating an “innovative” piece of theatre, of seeking something that’s never been done before. Because the truth is, that unless you’re using a piece of new technology, your idea’s been done before, somewhere else, by somebody else. If you discard an idea because it’s been done before, you’ll never get up and create. How many stories do you know that follow the structure girl-meets-boy, one of them likes the other but the other one is in love with someone else? And yet…

No matter what story you tell, it will be unique to your group. Don’t worry if something’s been done before (most art steals, erm, sorry, borrows, from other pieces of art), if it makes sense to your story, if your group is in love with the idea, use it, but make it yours. Don’t copy it. Don’t try to imitate but don’t be afraid of being inspired.

By the way, I did enjoy The Quality of Mercy. The book is a series of essays on Shakespeare, characterised by Brook’s no-nonsense style. Part memoir, part essay, it’s a swift read and I only wish there had been more!

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