Sara Kestelman: Theater In a Crowded Fire

Who was that voice?

Who was that Voice?

I’m talking with Peter Brook, renowned theater guru, a week before his Hamlet opened at B.A.M., and we’re trying to recall a remarkable moment in the theater we were both witness to long ago. A life-changing moment for me. A moment when fire broke out in a crowded theater–and then theater broke out in crowded fire.

A dream-like moment when a play, a Dream –Peter Brook’s legendary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream –literally ignited onstage, burst into flame, threatened to turn the Dream into a fiery nightmare. A moment when one voice pierced the smoke, turned the tide, stemmed the incipient, potentially tragic theater-fire panic. A moment when–and this was the strangest thing–after the play resumed, it seemed suddenly to comment on its own fiery interruption.

I don’t mean to get all mystical about that moment, about The Voice, but in the three decades since, its mystery has only deepened, grown more dream-like. Did it really happen that way?

When I mentioned it to Peter Brook, his icy blue eyes lit up.

“You know, I was there that night, backstage,” he told me. Not only that, he remembered The Voice! He remembered the play “commenting” on the fire!

Let me set the stage for the mystery of that Voice.

The setting: the Billy Rose Theater on Broadway, the night of Jan. 23, 1971. One of the first previews of the New York run of a Dream now celebrated as “mythical,” a production that changed the way Shakespeare was played ever after.

I was fortunate to be among the first to see the production when it opened at Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, the previous fall. Fortunate because I just stumbled into it a couple years out of college, knowing nothing about Peter Brook or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Fortunate because it was a transformative experience, an experience that changed my life, an experience more exciting than any other I’d had from literature, more exciting than any other I’d had from life until then (except maybe when my college girlfriend dressed up as a nurse).

It was so electrifying, so incandescent, it perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise that it set the theater on fire when it came to New York.

So when I sought out Peter Brook this April, primarily to talk about his Hamlet , I couldn’t resist bringing up the fire and the Dream . I’d brought along a copy of the story I’d written about that amazing, blazing moment three decades ago. About the way his Dream company had not just rescued the situation, but turned it into something revelatory and redemptive.

I met Peter Brook in the lounge of the Marriott Brooklyn hotel. As always, I was impressed by his otherworldly calm, his profound civility–and the depth of his belief in Shakespeare’s uniqueness. He’s someone who has done every kind of theater in virtually every culture in the world, from the ruins of Persepolis in Iran to remote African villages, from Marat/Sade to Mahabarata . But always he’s returned to plumbing the bottomless depths of Shakespeare. Not as a culture-bound Bardolator, but as someone who finds in Shakespeare, in the infinite resonances of his language, a phenomenon, a mystery that transcends cultures, something that evokes what Mr. Brook calls an “invisible dimension.” Once, in a lecture he gave in Berlin, Peter Brook spoke of the way cracking open a single line of Shakespeare can unleash “infinite energies” akin to those released by splitting the atom, intimations of ultimate mysteries.

I was thrilled that, with all he’s seen and done, he remembered that night at the Billy Rose Theater–the night of the fire, the night of that mysterious Voice.

“I can’t remember who it was, but what was very remarkable was this person who quietly relaxed everybody.” He was flipping through the photocopy of the story I’d written: “I can’t remember who, but I know that it was someone who took the whole thing in hand and, just by the tone of voice, changed the mood. It was quite remarkable.”

The other remarkable thing, he recalled, was the way, “when the fire was put out, every line seemed to relate to burning.”

“Yes!” I said. “When they resumed the play after the sprinkler system had doused the fire, there were ashes and steam drifting out from backstage just as they got to the line about ‘hot ice and wondrous strange snow.’ Then the line about watching an amateur play that ‘made mine eyes water’–just as our eyes were watering from the smoke!”

We returned to the mystery of The Voice.

“I remember now,” Mr. Brook said, reading the passage in my piece about the Voice. “This brings it back.”

The passage about The Voice, which was in fact first published in The Voice (and is reprinted in my recent nonfiction collection The Secret Parts of Fortune ), describes the crucial first moments when the flames appeared and panicked cries of “Fire!” went up from the audience. Down front in the orchestra seats closest to the smoke, people were rising to their feet and beginning a panicky rush to the exits:

“Just as the first push for the exits begins to break into a full rush,” I’d written, “an amazing Voice floats up above the confusion in the orchestra and stops everyone dead in their tracks. The Voice, a woman’s, a grand dame ‘s, just radiates, blankets the place in fact with her presence and authority … ‘Everyone. Sit. Down,’ the Voice commands. Hands outstretched grandly, she motions them all to be seated …. People … poised for flight a moment ago, began shuffling around, as if to show her they are looking for their seats. My companion informs me we have just heard the voice of the cosmic Girl Scout leader.”

Who was that Voice?

I had my candidate. “Was it Sara Kestelman?” I asked Peter Brook.

She was the actress playing Hippolyta the Amazon Queen and Titania, Queen of the Fairies, as well. There was no doubt she was regal, as was her voice. But I didn’t have a distinct visual memory that connected her to the voice.

Mr. Brook was noncommittal. He wasn’t sure, either.

Fortunately, I discovered, the solution to the mystery might not be beyond reach. It might, in fact, be 200 miles north in Boston, where that same Sara Kestelman was that very moment on stage playing Queen Gertrude in another Hamlet , the Royal National Theater company’s production, which was doing an American tour before heading to B.A.M. at the end of May.

Four days later, I was on a plane to Boston.

Tremont Street, Boston. The stage door of the Wilbur Theatre.

I’ve never waited at a stage door for an actress before. And I’ve never sent flowers to an actress before (nor to anyone I’ve interviewed), but I had a dozen roses delivered to Sara Kestelman’s dressing room yesterday. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m a stalker-type fan; I have an appointment to meet Ms. Kestelman here, duly arranged with the publicist for the Royal National Theatre Hamlet , in which she plays Gertrude to Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet.

Why the flowers? It suddenly occurred to me–a couple days after I spoke with Peter Brook, a couple of days before leaving for Boston to meet Ms. Kestelman–that I wanted to make a gesture of gratitude. That even if she wasn’t The Voice, Ms. Kestelman had played an important role in my life. Yes, everyone connected to Peter Brook’s Dream had played an important role: The production that turned me ever after into a seeker after Shakespearean mysteries.

But Ms. Kestelman had played the goddess in the Dream ; she had become, over the years, a kind of spiritual godmother figure for me, I guess. And in that incandescent moment when fire broke out onstage and the players–and the play–reached out beyond the curtain to ignite us all, she had played a kind of real-life heroine. If, in fact, she was The Voice–and I was sure she was–she had played an inspirational, initiating role in my life.

Ms. Kestelman was terrific as Gertrude: a subtle performance distinctive for avoiding the cheap Freudianism so many fall for in that role. Regal, maternal, vulnerable, conflicted, she was born to play a queen. But that much was obvious to me the first time I saw her when she played two queens: Hippolyta and Titania. The Peter Brook Dream was famous for “doubling,” as it’s called, both the Hippolyta and Titania roles and their respective male consorts–although Ms. Kestelman would quite scrupulously point out to me later that it wasn’t the very first to do so.

What made their doubling of Hippolyta and Titania unique, she believes, was that she didn’t change costumes–she wore the same shimmering green silk shift for each–that they were played as two aspects of the same being, not one actress playing two different roles. Titania was Hippolyta in Mr. Brook’s vision, the wild night-time incarnation of the Amazon queen. Mating with an ass was Hippolyta’s extreme sex-dream fantasy. (“Peter used to tell us that the ass was supposed to have the largest penis in the animal kingdom,” Ms. Kestelman recalled later on.)

Anyway, I’ll never forget her first entrance as Titania, descending from the rafters of the theater, riding a lush blood-red magic carpet of feathers, her arms outstretched in an attitude of command, her lush red hair upswept into a crimson crown.

She’s still a redhead, although when she emerges from the stage door out of costume, she’s less the imperious queen than a kind of elfin redhead type, her pale complexion with its subtle haze of freckles set off by a rakish black velvet slouch hat.

And, as soon as she spoke, there it was, that grand dame voice, a voice with the presence and command to stem the tide of human panic in that blazing theater long ago.

But no, she says, it wasn’t her voice. We’d decided to get some snacks at the Ritz nearby, and I raised the question as soon as we got into the car (which, appropriately enough for this unsolved mystery, was driven by a friend of mine who is a Boston private investigator).

The moment was still vivid in her mind–well, the fire, anyway, but not her role in it. “My memory,” she said in the car, “is we had candles in these sort of cake tins that we came on with at the very end, and they were bright, bright, bright, and then we blew them out and in the play-within-the-play scene”–the “Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe,” acted out by the Athenian “Mechanicals” for the newlyweds–”all the lights went down so that it was very atmospheric and romantic, and each of us practiced twirling these tins with the candles.”

It was at this point, she said, “we’d started the scene, and then I recall hearing someone say, ‘Oh my God, fire!’ And I thought, ‘Really, how ridiculous–so silly!’ And then someone else went, ‘OH MY GOD–FIRE!!’ Then people started getting up and starting to go. And I saw flames coming over the top of the 14-foot set, and at that point Mary Rutherford, who was playing Hermia, started to run offstage. And I remember grabbing her. And as I was grabbing her, in that moment I was thinking, ‘Why are you doing this–keeping them on stage when there is a fire raging behind you?’ But I knew that it was going to be all right. I just knew it was going to be O.K.

“And at that point, John Kane, who was playing Puck and Philostrate, walked forward and said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, please don’t panic. I will go into the wings and see what’s happening.’ By that time the sprinklers had been activated, and he was able to come back onstage and tell everyone that the fire was out. He was very cool, and because he was cool everybody onstage just stayed still. And then he turned to Alan Howard [playing Theseus] and said, ‘Where should we start again?’ There was all that kind of British stiff-upper-lip business ….”

Her account is lovely and moving–up to a point. But it is not complete. It leaves out a crucial element. It leaves out The Voice. The initial voice, the woman’s voice that both Peter Brook and I recall first stopped the rush to the exits from turning into a life-threatening panic. The voice I was sure was Sara’s.

The Ritz . Perhaps it was the champagne, perhaps it was the presence of a professional private investigator that brought out the interrogator in me, but after we ordered, I pressed my inquiry into the mysterious voice and the missing element in Sara Kestelman’s account.

I got out my copy of the piece I’d written, which had the virtue of being a contemporaneous eyewitness account, as opposed to Sara’s three-decades-old memory. I pointed out to her the passage that describes a woman’s voice (the grande dame voice that, now that I’d been talking to her for a while, sounds awfully familiar), followed by John Kane’s intervention. But in Sara’s account, the woman’s voice disappears!

I think it was her. I think she was The Voice, but that she has either blocked out her role in that fiery moment, or she’s incredibly, touchingly modest about it and doesn’t want to take credit for her heroism.

When I confronted her with the conflict between my contemporaneous account and her memory (in a lighthearted way–it wasn’t a cop-shop interrogation; we were drinking champagne at the Ritz, after all), she fixes me with a searching gaze and says, in her best grand-dame manner:

“You know what I think? I think you should see Copenhagen .”

Copenhagen? I thought to myself. Oh, I get it– Copenhagen , the Michael Frayn play. Sara starred in the Royal National Theatre drama about conflicting accounts of a crucial World War II meeting between Niels Bohr, the Danish atomic physicist, and Werner Heisenberg, then working for Adolf Hitler’s nascent atomic-weapons program. What went on at that meeting–whether Heisenberg was trying to help or stall Hitler’s acquisition of the bomb in his conversation with Bohr–has become the subject of endless controversy and Rashomon -like postwar interpretations. An instance of the Uncertainty Principle in history.

It was a witty response to the conflicting accounts of the Dream fire and The Voice. Witty, but charmingly evasive–somehow I don’t think this was an instance of Heisenbergian uncertainty. I think it was an instance of extraordinary grace and modesty by a superb actress who was pretending not to recall her own heroism.

Or perhaps it was something else, something more mysterious. That occurred to me after hearing her speak of the personal struggle the Dream had been for her. She was 24 at the time, without a vast experience of Shakespeare or any kind of theater; she’d begun her career as a dancer, in fact. She talked about the way being suddenly thrust into the blazing spotlight of one of the most famous and wildly successful Shakespeare productions ever–”people suddenly started flying in on helicopters and Rolls Royces”–had not been easy for her.

“It was a nightmare! I was so frightened, and suddenly there was the most successful thing in the world and I was not feeling clear about what I was doing . I had no confidence, no control over what I was doing onstage, of what made that Titania, that Hippolyta exciting or different.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I said. “You were so commanding …. “

“Well, believe it,” she said sharply. “It was an ordeal. After a performance, people would come to my dressing room and say, ‘It was so lovely the way your dress shimmered,’ and I’d tell them it wasn’t shimmering, it was fear .”

And yet, somehow she gave a performance that was, to all outward appearances, fearless. She must have conquered that internal fear somehow, perhaps in some way that was unconscious even to her. And perhaps that’s the clue to her conquest of the external panic at the Billy Rose Theater that memorable night. Just as she dealt with her own fear and panic in some way that was not conscious to her, perhaps she dealt with the panicked audience in a similar way–one that therefore might not have left a conscious trace in her memory. She dealt with it like a sleepwalker, a redemptive version of Shakespeare’s other sleepwalker queen: Lady Macbeth.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Because I’ve come to feel that there’s a kind of parable here, about fear and fire, about theater and life: One could look at life itself as a fire-in-a-crowded-theater situation: inherently panic-inducing if one considers too closely upon it. After all, we’re all rushing headlong to the Exit, so to speak. The only question is whether we do it with dignity or panic, whether or not we can somehow enjoy the dreamy comedy being staged for our entertainment before the final curtain. Maybe I’m thinking in this gloomy mode because I’m facing some hospital time. Still, I’m grateful to Sara Kestelman, to everyone in that Dream, for dempnstrating how to transform fire in a crowded theater into a kind of redemptive theater in a crowded fire.