Friday, March 18, 2011

Peter Brook still making magic

At the end of the Guardian article about Peter Brook's latest production, Mozart's Magic Flute, the writer quotes Brook as saying: what does touch me is when people come up to me in the street, as they sometimes do since they mistakenly think I've retired, and talk about some experience that has remained with them. That for me is the only real legacy: the idea that one has left a lingering trace in people's memories. In the end, that's all a director can hope to do."

I still remember seeing his Midsummer Night's Dream in the sixties - the set was a bare white box with a door at the back (I don't remember any other entrances). Everything was 'created' in this white space, and amazingly what was seen and heard was wondrous. It had a marvellous life. As Brook notes, you can't recreate 'Brook' - each director has to do his own work.

My first reaction, however, to his Magic Flute production was that he's skimmed it down to next to nothing. Here's how it's described.

His 90-minute production of Mozart's A Magic Flute, which comes to the Barbican next week, is quintessential late Brook. Out go the opera's pantomimic spectacle, big processions and trios of boys and ladies. Instead, we have a stage bare except for bamboo poles and minimal props and a young, nine-strong cast who deliver the work – sung in German with dialogue in French – crucially situated in front of Franck Krawczyk at the piano. As Brook wryly says: "If you come to this production looking for something that will slam you in the eyes, you've come to the wrong address."

That, at first, puts me off. However, you need to read further into the article. While this can't be a visual spectacle it's obviously going to be effective.

One other thing struck me: he also says:

"I have an unshakeable conviction," says Brook, "that never in history has a guy written the tunes, and someone has come along and put the words to them. I once asked Richard Rodgers whether he had any tunes in his bottom draw waiting for a lyric. He told me that it was only when he heard the lyricist's precise words, such as Oscar Hammerstein's "O, what a beautiful mornin'", that the melodies emerged. And in Mozart, the music is drawn to the surface by the words."

Brook's 'unshakeable conviction' may or may not be correct. I've certainly puzzled over the idea that tunes came first for many of the great musical comedy writers of the 20th century, but it's been stated in more than a few places that that's how they worked. Perhaps the answer is closer to this: the lyricist proposes some words; the composer gets a framework of an idea for the music; the lyricist fits his words to the music; the composer rearranges his music to make it work better; the lyricist alters his words to fit the rearranged music - and so on, until the product is ready. This may happen in a matter of hours, weeks or months. And perhaps the composers/lyricists, in reflecting back on how a song was written, forget all the to-ing and fro-ing that's gone on.
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