Peter Brook’s 1970 Dream

In 1970 the theatre director Peter Brook was invited by the Royal Shakespeare Company to direct a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Brook surprised himself by agreeing to the project but had a strong passion for Chinese acrobatics, which he wanted to introduce as a visual style. ‘So we began with only the conviction that if we worked long, hard and joyfully on all aspects of the play, a form would gradually appear.’ He wrote later ‘We started preparing the ground to give this form a chance. Within each day we improvised the characters and the story, practised acrobatics and then passing from the body to the mind, discussed and analysed the text line by line with no idea of where this was leading us. There was no chaos, only a form guide, the sense of an unknown form calling us to continue.’

A few weeks before rehearsals were due to start Brook met the playwright (later philosopher) David Selborne to discuss one of Selborne’s plays. During the conversation Brook invited Selborne to his rehearsals of the Dream. Three weeks later, without fully understanding what his brief was, Selborne duly arrived on the morning of the first rehearsal. He stayed throughout, observing, noting and discussing the rehearsal process with Brook and the actors up until the first night of performance. Twelve years later Selborne published his observations in a book ‘The Making of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – an eye witness account of Peter Brook’s production from first rehearsal to first night’.

What comes across from Selborne’s account is the image of a flower opening. From tense beginnings where confusion and uncertainty pervaded the rehearsal room, Brook begins to find ways for the cast to experience his vision and to trust it. The first three weeks, where the cast are getting to know each other and Brook tries to articulate what is so clearly in his head, provide a fascinating insight to the personal journey that everyone had signed-up to.

‘Brook is an innovator.’ Selborne writes ‘He is constantly in search of a new approach to Shakespeare.’

Brook rehearses the Rude Mechanicals during the first week insisting that they ‘must do nothing actorish‘ He goes on to state ‘This is a mysterious play and there is nothing in it by accident, nothing by chance. Other playwrights’ meanings can be fully fathomed. But here the material is as if beyond Shakespeare altogether.’

Peter BrookThe journey that Brook sets everyone on is about finding the rhythm of the text, the right sound and allowing the sound and rhythm to determine the pace and energy. It’s a difficult and nebulous concept for some of the cast to grasp who ask questions that appear to irritate Brook ‘Is the whole play a dream?’ one actor asks ‘Don’t impose a theory on it. Don’t take it literally either. Discover the truth of it.‘ Brook replies and then goes on to say ‘There is in the play a reality beyond description.’ Selborne watched from the sidelines, seated on a metal chair, seemingly unconvinced by Brook’s methods and his ability to communicate clearly with his cast.

‘Two lines of inquiry have evidently been started.’ Selborne notes during the first week ‘One is into the rhythmic properties of Shakespeare’s speech, the other into the nature of truth and illusion as Shakespeare presents it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

Images of Brook’s production have become instantly recognisable because of the white box that he used as the set and the swinging trapezes that were used throughout. Not only did the cast have to find a rhythm they had to learn to spin plates, juggle, skip and swing on a trapeze – convincingly ‘The actors this morning are swinging on gymnasium ropes, and spinning metal discs. No Arcadia threatens here, at least for the time being. Moreover, one of Brook’s pre-verbal exercises followed. The whole company sat in a circle. Brook asked them to close their eyes, sitting close but not touching and to communicate with each other by sound.’ 

Peter BrookBy week two the cast are making progress ‘Today Brook also expects the actors to find their way to their own choice of vowels, syllables, words or lines to heighten and intone amid the spoken cadences. Thus Puck, swinging rhythmically back and forth above the rest of the cast, sings as he speaks. Below the others – whispering, coughing, laughing, sneezing – echo, repeat, illustrate and counterpoint his singing until he leaps down among them a ‘Here comes Oberon’. Oberon’s voice is cold and proud against it; his ‘I’ll met by moonlight’ cuts into and extinguishes the rustle of still echoing sound. And within minutes comes the first moment of raptness in rehearsal, close to thinking aloud. ‘Thou rememb’rest’ Oberon whispers to Puck in a sharing as near to silence as words can come, ‘Since once I sat upon a promontory, And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back’ ‘I remember’ says Puck, and there is in all the cast a held inhalation, a first sense of achievement. Now mystery is breaking through’ says Brook ‘Oberon is opening up in the right direction for you all. Borrow from each other. Listen.’

But for every step forward the cast appear to take two steps backwards. By week three the actors and Brook are at loggerheads seemingly talking a different language. The actors, it appears to Selborne, want direction. Brook wants them to find their own way and offers little to help them other than criticism when they get don’t meet his expectations ‘We can’t go on unless we know what it is about. What happens in this wood must be found. Have any of you thought about it?’ Brook demands of the actors playing Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius. ‘You must be constantly questioning yourselves, others and me as to what it is about. Without an understanding of the whole play, we cannot go on any longer’The actors stand motionless and speechless’ Selborne observes ‘in an unrehearsed moment of perfect stasis. They form a hieratic tableau of acolytes at a standstill before the altar.’

By end of the third week the experiences that Brook has orchestrated for the actors begin to have an impact on their performances. Selborne watches a run through on the last day of the week and senses ‘the play’s shape and figure now becoming sharply delineated in the lucidities of the rehearsal, today began to provide a more definitive and secure context for performance. That is the actors seemed to begin to know their places more exactly within the whole play’s movement, however swift and electric its passage now, from enchantment to disillusion, from safety to danger.’

Rehearsals continue.

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