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Are We Not Men? Peter Brook's films at the French Institute and Battlefield at the Young Vic


“An attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature” was how William Golding described the theme of his first novel Lord of the Flies upon its publication in 1956. It’s no surprise that its adaptation for the big screen was theatre director Peter Brook’s debut feature in 1964: the theme of man’s need to destroy and kill preoccupies him more than any other.
Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies

It was not by chance that the screening at the French Institute in London was in tandem with Battlefield at the Young Vic, an evocation by Peter Brook, collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and writer Jean-Claude Carrière based on passages from the Mahabharata depicting the aftermath of a great war in which a family is torn apart and experience victory as bitter defeat. In some ways, Battlefield completes the circle and begins just where Lord of the Flies ends: with the trauma experienced after terrible destruction.
Brook’s also obsessed with mythology and ritual; Battlefield calls for an audience to embrace his mix of ceremony and performance, if you don’t, you are in danger of walking away empty handed. The same too can be said of his interpretation of Lord of the Flies: at the time of its release, enraged critics lamented at its lack of camera coherency, set ups, uneven childish acting (he dared to work with child non-actors) failing to recognise the psychological intensity of the piece and Brook’s interest in the inner workings of the mind (illustrated in later works such as The Valley of Astonishment). Brook’s works are always understated (another criticism at the time dealt with the underplaying of the twins’ roles as mystics) and Lord of the Flies seems to draw on the film styles of Tarkovsky and Antonioni in particular (whose quest for truth mirrors Brook’s own: "we have examined ( ) moral attitudes very carefully, we have dissected them and analyzed them to the point of exhaustion. We have been capable of all this, but we have not been capable of finding new ones”). Both filmmakers challenged traditional approaches to narrative, mise en scene, use of camera: Brook’s overall schematic design in Lord of the Flies and his camera is contemplative in a similar style. Interestingly, at the end of his review of Battlefield, Michael Billington writes that ‘the result is a dazzling piece of theatre that makes us contemplate the endless cycle of human destruction but induces a sense of resignation rather than rousing us to action.’ There is a similar sense at the end of Lord of Flies, asking the question is this what art should do, can do, is expected to do?. Maybe the lesson is about repetition (not resignation): we can only stop the endless cycle of violence by just stopping the cycle (without thought or further protests or debate).
Brook’s next film Tell me Lies, based on his anti-Vietnam war protest play US at the RSC in 1966, in contrast to Lord of the Flies, explodes onto the screen with its agitprop style, songs, dramatic reenactments and personal and political enquiry. Characters played by Glenda Jackson, Paul Schofield and Peggy Ashcroft among others, take us on a cultural journey through London as they probe political, religious and social attitudes to the war in Vietnam and the question of Britain’s entry into it in alliance with the US. Critics at the time accused it of being “unable to give the US a fair hearing.” Which asks the question: how should we react to a war that we don’t believe in? If, when we act at all, means only doing so in the preferred way of the many, encouraging cloudy debate instead of bringing about real change? Surely this sort of debate is a trap? Is the right question to ask “what should we do?” not “what should we say”? (A wonderful example of this could be Good Chance Theatre in Calais, which concentrates on providing a safe and creative space for refugees, without attempting to provide or impose answers to political and social problems) In a recent interview, Marie-Hélène Estienne stated “The moral, the good or bad, is not really there, it is another matter- a matter of what you have to do.” This was in connection to Peter Brooks 1980s “seminal” staging of the Mahabharata, on which she was assisting but it still feels relevant to today.
“The truth will always be there” is quoted in The Tightrope, a 2012 fly on the wall documentary by Peter Brook’s son Simon, observing a two week rehearsal period at The Bouffes du Nord in Paris and the last film to be shown at the French Institute. It concentrates on an acting exercise called ‘the tightrope’ where actors imagine they are trying to walk across a high wire, whilst facing elemental obstacles like fire and water. The exercise is also a metaphor for life, concentrating on our powers of alertness, presence and balance: all tools we need to find our own inner truths. When it was released, some critics demanded “more context please” wishing to learn more about Peter Brook, but you get all you need to know about him from watching him work. Silence, breath, shared purpose and mind are the film’s protagonists and time feels endless, even though we are reminded by Brook himself that it is not, that it forever runs away from us like the falling sand measuring the minutes gone by in an Hour Glass. But even if the film’s themes are the main protagonists, we do get a sense of the actors as ‘men’ or people. They seem like bodies that can hold oceanic time within them. It is interesting to note that the audience at the French Institute were gripped by the same kind of intense, collective energy shared by the workshop participants, it felt as if there was a collective heightening of IQ. It is rare that film, not being live, can transmit across such different time spans. 

first printed in Ministry of Counterculture

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