It’s been 40 years since Peter Brook wrote in the opening to The Empty Space, his famous manifesto, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
In his production of The Grand Inquisitor, adapted from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a man—the Grand Inquisitor—walks across an empty space while someone else—Jesus—is watching him. And so the play begins.
Mr. Brook, you might say, has arrived at the point where he began.
There was life before The Empty Space, however, in which his innovatory productions were broadly defined by their dazzling theatricality rather than their minimalist simplicity. When Mr. Brook was but a prodigy (62 years ago), he directed a spectacular version of The Brothers Karamazov (with a spectacularly miscast Alec Guinness). His life after The Empty Space—from his touchstone A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the epic The Mahabharata and on, has been a constant search for the essence of theater—a form of secular communion, immediate, unadorned, vast in its simplicity and complete.
Such a theater encompasses a true mystery—not a trendy fake one. The production of The Grand Inquisitor—which lasts only 55 minutes—is so stripped of obvious theatricality that some have found it too spare in its austerity. I would argue the opposite—that its theatricality is inherent in the power of its naked simplicity.
IN TODAY’S avant-garde theater of faux magical high-tech effects, it’s as if Peter Brook is still making a revolutionary statement after all these years.
The use of video onstage—any old video—is the prevailing fashion that long since snared Simon McBurney, whose histrionic revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is decked out with numerous theatrical effects in a misguided effort to make the play “modern.” Mr. McBurney is far from alone: The American avant-gardists—led by the Wooster Group with its now familiar banks of TV screens, video tricks and use of distorted sound—have been locked in the same deconstructive technological style for a generation.
Then again, the de rigueur video projections used in Penny Woolcock’s current production of Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera House are the more surprisingly literal-minded and banal—an airplane, a few clouds, rain—when we remind ourselves that Ms. Woolcock is a film director. (This is her theater debut.) Meanwhile, at the New York Theatre Workshop downtown (where Mr. Brook has staged The Grand Inquisitor in a joint effort with Theatre for a New Audience, who initiated the idea), the house favorite Ivan van Hove recently reveled in staging Molière’s The Misanthrope as an anime cartoon and simulcast video—in other words, a theater piece in virtual reality.
In that avant-garde sense, The Grand Inquisitor—a play about an antichrist—is a stage production that symbolizes Mr. Brook’s anti-technology. Untheatrical? To the contrary, it could only take place in a theater that trusts the unmediated power of our imagination.
Theater, for all its frequent compromise and even ruination, remains our last public forum where beautiful, troubling stories can still be told. In Dostoyevsky’s preamble to the grand inquisitor section in the novel (which isn’t repeated in this stage version), the intellectual atheist Ivan warns his brother, the novice monk Alyosha, that the story he’s about to tell him won’t mean anything if “you are so corrupted by modern realism that you can’t stand anything fantasy. …”
The story is indeed fanciful, and arguably makes an unanswerable case against the existence of God. Dostoyevsky, the novelist who asked how, if God exists, the suffering of a child can even be thinkable, anticipated the arguments of today’s “Death of God” school by more than a century. But his private religious views, though fervent, are notoriously difficult to pin down. Dostoyevsky allows for the possibility of mystery in a world saturated with humanity’s tears and blood. And for those who don’t know the final, ineffable moments of The Grand Inquisitor—which I shouldn’t reveal—he suggests the possibility of salvation through love.
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