The Empty Space by Peter Brook
In 150 odd pages Peter Brook spells out his thoughts on four types of theatre: the deadly, the holy, the rough and the immediate. He could easily have done it in 50 pages such is the density of his thought process. His essential theme is that theatre should be thought provoking, challenging and creative. A play is a play Brook concludes and more importantly explains that theatre is in the present, in the now. Cinema is experiencing something filmed and acted often years ago. Art works and installations have been created in the past while TV drama nowadays is almost always recorded. On the stage each performance is live and if you watch the same play twice you’ll notice changes of pace and tone.
For years The Empty Space has been required reading for every student of theatre and those with an interest in drama. Brook’s thoughts and views come thick and fast providing considerable material for discussion and yet at times he appears to labour a point and cloud his ideas with too much philosophy. “As you read this book it is already moving out of date,” he writes. The hippy ‘happenings’ of the 1960s no longer take place and a single theatre critic can no longer kill a play dead with a killer review thanks to the internet and its plethora of views on any given subject.
There’s a section close to my heart on the deadly critic who fails to understand the process of drama and has no vision of what theatre should be. Brooks suggests that critics need to embrace the theatrical process to get a better understanding rather than standing at the side lines and firing off volleys of barbs. In the deadly theatre creativity has given way to convention where entertainment triumphs over innovation. The holy theatre is that of reverence to the cannon and tradition while the rough theatre – that of Brecht for instance – brings a fresh and strikingly new force to the art form. And in many ways Brook’s division of theatre into the four sectors can be applied to many art forms. In his concluding chapter on the immediate theatre it is the role of the audience and how an actor reacts to the immediacy of a performance that he discusses. Clocks never go back he writes, and with plays you wipe the slate clean for each performance.
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Peter Brooks is best known by many in the theatre for his production of A Mid Summer Night’s Dream in 1970. There’s a short documentary about it at https://youtu.be/1CkN9k6S3Js although the recording quality is a bit poor.