Book review

The Empty Space

by Peter Brook


This slim book sets out to be an analysis of theatre, from one of the most significant directors of the second half of the 20th century. Actually, it’s not about that: it’s about life. Peter Brook analyses theatre performances into four categories, while acknowledging that any performance can flip from one to another category in a few words. It’s completely timeless, by the way – it was written 50 years ago, but could have been written last year.

The first is Deadly Theatre. Theatre as “tradition” and “heritage” and “because that’s just how it’s done”. This was brilliantly caricatured in the third series of the wonderful Blackadder, where two actors try each the befuddled Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie) to improve his public speaking, explaining to him how you need to thrust your groin forward, throw out your arms, and start every declamation with a loud “Aaaaaahhh!!!”. It means theatre as a caricature of itself, acting with an arch view of how acting “ought” to be. In life, I see this all the time: meetings held “because this is when we have this meeting”, corporate decisions guided only by the dead hand of expectation, dismal social conventions because that’s how it was done 20, 30, 50 years ago.

Then there is Holy Theatre. This is when, as Mr Brook puts it:

it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts.

It’s when we see theatre performed with beauty and with love (which) fires the spirit and gives them a reminder that daily drabness is not necessarily all. Life as it out to be lived, for the moment, or for the value we bring to others.

Next comes Rough Theatre. Theatre not necessarily performed in traditional venues, but less formal, truer perhaps to the original spirit, more energised by improvisation. It is contrasted with Holy Theatre in that the former tries to look at hidden motives, while the Rough looks at real events and actions that directly affect the viewer.

Finally comes Immediate Theatre. He describes this as theatre that “asserts itself in the present”, which I think means theatre that connects and reflects directly to what’s in our hearts at the moment. He certainly talks more of the interaction with the audience in this chapter, and how much they bring to the experience. Contemporary satirical comedy, with an emphasis on the current political and social climate, and heckling from the audience turning into part of the act, seems to fit in here. More formally, Mr Brooks talks about working with actors to see how the pacing of a speech from Shakespeare might sound in modern prose, and to use that phrasing to connect and convey feeling to the audience. It’s very much about directly engaging with the audience.

Although the boundary between these four isn’t always clear, it does seem to me that if you think of them as four overlapping circles*, rather than four squares with a clear division between them, then it does make a deal of sense. And, I think, this is a very interesting perspective to bring to the world of work, and of our lives. Experiences where advertising seeks to create false “deadly” aspirations, moments in nature that are “holy”, or when we find flow in a “rough” DIY task, or when our interactions with a child are “immediate”.

Four stars for powerful stuff.

(*OK, technically to get each one of four things to overlap with the other three, you need to think of it as four overlapping spheres in a pyramid, but people look at me oddly when I say things like that, and I think you all knew what I meant anyway)

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