Swans Commentary » swans.com February 26, 2007  



Peter Brook's Sober Magic In Milan And The Dower Of Giorgio Strehler


by Peter Byrne


A Review of Two Plays



Sizwe Banzi est mort, (Sizwe Banzi is Dead), a play by Athol Fugard, directed by Peter Brook. In French. Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Studio Theatre, November 24, 2006. With Habib Dembélé and Pitcho Womba Konga.

Giorni felici (Happy Days), a play by Samuel Beckett, directed by the late Giorgio Strehler and re-presented by Carlo Battistoni. In Italian. Translation by Carlo Frutttero. Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Grassi Theatre, November 25, 2006. With Giulia Lazzarini and Franco Sangermano.


(Swans - February 26, 2007)  If modern Italian theatre has a sacred place, it's the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, a theatre forever coupled to the name of Giorgio Strehler, its founder who died in 1997. And if contemporary theatre has a tutelary spirit and guru in chief, it's Peter Brook, still a force to reckon with at 81. (Charles Marowitz's "Peter Brook At Eighty," Swans.com, June 6, 2005, is essential reading.) Their two ways of making theatre came together in Milan when (Nov. 14-25) Brook brought his latest production from the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, Sizwe Banzi est mort/Sizwe Banzi is dead. He also treated the Milan public to a conversation rich in his brand of gnomic simplicity. At the same time (Nov. 23-29) the Piccolo presented Giorni felici/Happy Days by Samuel Beckett to mark the Irish author's centenary. It was Strehler's only mise-en-scène of Beckett and dated from 1982.

The Piccolo first came to international attention in the early 1950s with Strehler's Harlequin: Servant of Two Masters, a production that brought Commedia dell'arte back to life. Strehler introduced scrupulous craftsmanship, precision, and a new concern for lighting and the use of stage space to Italian theatre. He followed the austere tradition of Copeau and Jouvet that always left room for poetry. There followed landmark productions of Goldoni, Shakespeare, and especially of Brecht, who considered Strehler one of his most faithful and interesting interpreters. Strehler's work with the Theatre of Europe's various productions in Paris from 1983 meant his influence on theatre beyond Italy was considerable. The momentum he imparted to the Piccolo with the help of co-founder Paolo Grassi has endowed Milan with an integrated theatrical plant that few cities can boast. There are three stages in constant use, a theatre school, educational outreach, archives; in short, an oasis and a treasure house. The theatrical luminaries of Europe come to collaborate with the Piccolo. Luca Ronconi, a major figure in Italian theatre, plays an important role. Peter Stein, the illustrious Berlin director, is currently presenting Death in the Cathedral. Patrice Chéreau and Robert Wilson directed work in December.

Politics and ideology attended the Piccolo's birth in 1945. The theatre in via Rovello that was to be its first home had been used the two preceding years by the Nazi-Fascists as a torture center. Strehler and Grassi consciously broke with the past and plunged the new company into the hopeful, lively, and still unstained post-WWII progressivism. This fertile new current, marked with names like Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Soldati, Pavese and Vitorrini, was to revitalize Italian culture. Without political backing the Piccolo wouldn't have been sustainable and the two founders threw in their lot with the Socialist Party. It's hard now after the illegalities and sleaze of the Mitterrand Government in France and the Craxi Government in Italy to remember what promise Socialist Parties represented in the immediate postwar years. However, the Piccolo's political alignment would cause Strehler and Grassi some inconvenience later. They were both steeped in the great texts of the past and respectful of the artist's autonomy. It would be impossible for them to conform to the cruder sort of socialist realism proposed by some of their backers. Thus, as we shall see, Strehler directed only one of Beckett's plays. The Left at the time didn't consider the Irishman a cheerleader for progress, his concern being more for the human being who might or might not progress.

Brook like Strehler embarked on the same relentless search for perfection. But otherwise he has taken a very different path. The Italian rooted himself in Milan and reached out toward Paris and Germany. He was a bossy Harlequin. Brook carried just as big a stick, but has always kept his voice to a murmur. He was a shaman in training from his days as a boy wonder when he already envisaged the entire world as his workshop. At twenty he chatted familiarly with Gordon Craig. He visited the Moscow Art Theatre and saw productions that had been directed by Stanislavski. He talked theatre with his Russian cousin who had been Meyerhold's assistant. At twenty-five Brook met Brecht in Berlin. He would be on friendly terms with Cocteau, Barrault, and Grotowski.

It was surprising enough to have such a young man directing popular stars like Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Margaret Rutherford, and Claire Bloom in the frivolities of London's West End. But Brook, not yet thirty, was also directing one of the greatest older generations of actors England had ever boasted: Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quayle, Alec Clunes, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Irene Worth, and Vivien Leigh. His long association with The Royal Shakespeare Company resulted in trail blazing productions of Measure for Measure, 1950, Titus Andronicus, 1955, King Lear, 1962, and Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970. Brook was all the time enriching these classic texts with very contemporary concerns. His curiosity and openness to ideas led him to avant-garde experiment. He read and tested Antonin Artaud in depth and adopted the cool analytical posture of Brecht. The Marat/Sade, 1964, and US, 1966, were the outcome. A Peter Brook production had now become a major cultural event.

For all his British success, Brook felt he needed a larger horizon. His move to France in 1970, however, wasn't meant merely to take the measure of French theatre. He wanted to get beyond national cultures to something more universal. In Paris he co-founded the International Center for Theatre Research. It grouped performers from many nations, and refused to be limited to European plays. The Center's principal achievement would be a nine-hour presentation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata in 1985. Brook had embarked on a series of productions based on the epic texts of ancient cultures. When working on more intimate pieces, he never stopped looking for "the secret play" within.

In 1974 Brook reopened an old Paris theatre, Les Bouffes du Nord, and made it his home. But in truth he has always remained very much a traveling player with a particular interest in Asia and Africa. His actors still consist of mixed nationals. They achieve unity in performance by their acting, which is transparent, selfless and unforced. His use of actors as vessels and his sobriety of theatrical means eminently suits Brook's recent works like his skeletal Hamlet of 2000, Le Sage de Bandiagara of 2004, and Tierno Bakar of 2005, based on the life of a West African Sufi in the 1930s.


* * * * *


Sizwe Banzi est mort, given at the Piccolo in French, the language of the Paris production, was written by the white South African writer Athol Fugard in 1972 in collaboration with two African actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. At the time, black South Africans were not free to assemble. Township (apartheid ghetto) theatre had to be performed in workers' hostels and church halls, often clandestinely. Brook, always attentive to the different kinds of theatre, seized upon this example, which he found "full of the energy, precision and derision of the streets," as well as of intimations of the future.

The Studio Theatre is a high brick space behind the façade of an old theatre. A tight crescent of seats encloses a playing space that connects to a back area where a proscenium effect can be achieved. Habib Dembélé (a Mali actor) strides without fanfare into the semi-enclosed space that will serve for Sizwe Banzi est mort. The ground rules of the play are immediately established. Estheticism, in any flashy sense, is out. Lighting is intentionally basic and strong. Props lying about are the stuff a street person might have in the shopping cart he uses as a mobile home: cardboard boxes, scavenged clothing racks, garbage-can bric-a-brac. Forget Brecht's practice of using few but richly crafted stage objects.

Habib, a small wiry man vibrant with energy, has the demeanor of a street entertainer, a wily type who would surely get the better of you in a deal. In the character of Styles, he immediately takes possession of us with the driving spiel of a busker working a curbside crowd. To begin with he recounts his life in a factory. He will suggest, mime, bring into existence a dozen characters. It's done with the rapidity and lightness -- a flick of an ear, a sudden re-shaping of the shoulders, widening eyes -- that border on sorcery. We already have the heart of the performance set before us: the self-possession and ingenuity -- the pure skill -- that can't be brought low by any social or political degradation. The factory story quickly reveals the second truth of the evening: Do what you will to a human being, even crush him beneath a hallucinatory social order like apartheid, but you will never extirpate his casual derision for you and your utopian madhouse. Athol Fugard's play in Peter Brook's hands doesn't argue politics. It shows black South Africans living intensely thanks to whatever resources they can find and in the process ignoring the system imposed on them as if it were a pile of filth to walk around in the street.

In a virtuoso sequence of the factory episode, Styles acts as interpreter and middleman between his boss and the humbler employees. A super-boss is arriving from America to visit the factory, and the place has to be cleaned up. As Styles conveys his boss' instructions he strips them -- Harlequin fashion -- of every moralistic and respectful overtone to deliver the orders in their naked meaning. The contrast is hilarious, and we forget that a sole actor is animating the proceedings.

A work speed-up follows the super-boss' visit, during which he said not a word and spent no more than a few minutes in the spruced up factory. Styles leaves the job and sets up as a photographer. On stage this involves the mere shifting of cardboard boxes. Let me confess that when Styles starts to finger an imaginary camera I have qualms. Spare me those drama school exercises when the student bites into an apple that isn't there and then changes the shape of his lips to eat an imaginary banana! But Styles's truck with the invisible works because it's incidental, unmannered, effortless, and very deft. Describing the doings of his photo studio he's able to evoke a whole range of black South Africans, in a word, to show us a society. Fugard and his two collaborating writers are pointing out that these people are more than a category: They are at least as varied, unalike and full of the grit of humanity as we are.

Enter Pitchou Womba Longa, (a Congolese) as Sizwe, the second actor of the play. He's big, clumsy and country-innocent -- the bear to loom unsteadily above the poised fox -- and completes one of those perfectly contrasted theatrical teams, the very sight of which is an entertainment. Enter also a smidgen of plot. Sizwe has left his wife and children in the locality he's legally tied to and where the only work available is in the mines. Now he's going to be sent back there because he has no apartheid pass, no residence permit.

Styles, the born fixer, takes on the problem. Meditating a solution, he goes outside to pass water and his wandering jet falls on a prone body. It's a drunk, and he's dead, but with a residence permit in his pocket. The Fox brings back to the Bear the corpse's sprinkled shoe with his permit inside. Another drama school gimmick? No, because the two actors and Brook make it work. We could swear that we did see the body. Styles convinces Sizwe that his future lies in dying himself and taking on the dead man's existence. That is precisely what, after some hemming and hawing, Sizwe does.

It has been noticeable, once Sizwe came on stage and Styles turned to persuading him -- instead of us -- that the performance shifts gears. One couldn't help wondering what would have resulted if Styles was left to hold the stage on his own all evening. His ability to populate it seems inexhaustible. The entry of the good Sizwe tidies up the play with a simple plot, but in a way muzzles Styles' extraordinary power. He has to leave the role of demiurge and become a full-time fixer.

Now commentators have made much of the switch in identities on which the plot turns, and of the demonstration that there can be no life unless you can prove it with the proper papers. Some have even talked about a Pirandellian identity puzzle. That it surely going too far, as Sizwe's change of names mercifully falls short of Pirandello's metaphysical pyrotechnics. For this viewer the identity anecdote is amusing enough and indicative of the regime's pressures to push black humanity towards nonexistence. But in Brook's thinking there's always a "secret play" within the play. The real import of the production is elsewhere than in the identity juggling. The two actors beneath the director's wand do something very powerful and primordial. By the skill of their representation they establish the existence of black South Africans as something as substantial as the plains and the mountains. It will be no more suppressed by a frightened troupe of pink-skinned bureaucrats, whatever their armament, than by a windborne swarm of bluebottle flies.


* * * * *


The Grassi Theatre is the original Piccolo stage in via Rovello. It's simple and reasonably intimate with classic lines and a stripped down proscenium. Strehler's 1982 mise-en-scène of Happy Days presented there has a history of its own. Brecht, the great proponent of engagé theatre after WWII, found Samuel Beckett's work nihilistic and devoid of political message. He even considered, to Beckett's horror, rewriting Waiting for Godot as an upbeat leftist tract. Strehler, who was close to Brecht, but on the other side of Cold War Europe, without the East German State paying his bills, solved his dilemma temporarily by leaving Beckett alone till well after Brecht's death in 1956.

Now Strehler, by culture and conscience, was not a director to alter the sense of a contemporary masterpiece or cut into a text where every word has a calculated function. Had he been, Beckett himself would have intervened legally as he often did, and his family still does, when his work is manhandled. So Strehler's production of Happy Days did not change a word of the play as written. It also, in the main, respected the stage directions, which are more precise and explicit than in any play ever written. Beckett, in italics, stands over the hapless director calibrating the length of every smile and the geometry of each gesture of his character. The play is as director-proof as any play can be.

Strehler, then, had little leeway in which to please his progressive public and to justify his own reputation as a man of the Left. He nevertheless made a try. He commented that such intense poetry could not spring from pessimism. Winnie, the main character, spent such energy in her striving, he said, that she could only be seen as affirmative. As bad as existence was, she was tendering us an invitation to live. Friendly Italian critics such as Franco Cordelli went along with this doubtful line of reasoning. They also maintained that, without textual chopping and changing, Strehler, by extra-verbal means, gave a "revolutionary" interpretation of the play.

It was as if we were witnessing a re-run of what happened after Beckett obtained the Nobel Prize in 1969. Then the keep-smiling crowd tried to see Godot as a Christian message of hope. Beckett wasted no time in pointing out that he had followed Godot with the unequivocally hope-challenged Endgame precisely to clarify that issue. The truth is that Happy Days shows a person of great energy busying herself with petty matters in order not to collapse in despair in the face of physical deterioration and the impossibility of life to satisfy human yearnings. Other Beckett characters respond to this situation by going comatose or irrupting into logorrheic storytelling. Winnie invents time-killing routines. The author underlines the contradiction he sees in life: it would be better not to be born; yet we tenaciously hold on till our last breath. However, it isn't any philosophical position that makes Happy Days a great play: It's in Beckett's stagecraft and in the poetry, humor, and quirky humanity with which Winnie spars with her and our contradiction.

So what does the non-verbal side of the production look like? What's in it beside the unaltered words? The scene opens with Winnie up to her waist in the top of a gently sloping matt white surface. It's not the mound that Beckett specified, but close enough to be acceptable. The whiteness, with silver and black in the background, makes for a very elegant stage-scene. "Bello" is the most Italian of words and it goes against the national character to produce anything less. One could question, though, whether this beauty reproduced the "pompier trompe-l'oeil backcloth" the author called for.

The principal scenic innovation is a mirror curtain at the back of the stage. By spotlighting the reflections on this black surface we actually see the hole Willy (Franco Sangermano) lives in, usually hidden by the mound. More startlingly we see Winnie (Giulia Lazzarini) from the back as well, in two dimensions, as it were. Her gesturing upper body becomes an exquisite and mesmerizing sculpture. Considering too that the mirror allows us to possess the whole geography of the play, it's an innovation very hard to fault. The reflections are far enough from the main action not to distract from it. Purists could object, possibly, that it makes too much of Winnie's body.

Giulia Lazzarini, a woman in her mid-seventies, does honor to a testing role that has challenged the greatest actresses of the last half century: Ruth White, Brenda Bruce, Marie Kean, Madeleine Renaud, Eva Katherina Schultz, Peggy Ashcroft, Irene Worth, Natasha Parry, Billie Whitelaw, Prunella Scales, and Felicity Kendal. Lazzarini is as good as any of them, superb in the rapid mood changes that characterize the role and demand a wide vocal range and agility. She, incidentally, renders superbly Winnie's anecdote that Beckett aimed at critics. This tells how a squabbling married couple once stood gaping at her semi-buried figure. The husband asked his wife "What does it mean?...What is it meant to mean?" The wife replied tartly to her husband, "And you...what's the idea of you...what are you meant to mean?"

Happy Days has one long and one short act. After the interval Winnie's condition has changed for the worse, if that can be imagined. Now only her head isn't buried. Here Strehler definitely adjusts Beckett's vision. The author's Winnie returns in a sorry state, but still in control, as it were, and wearing her same flower-decked hat. Strehler's Winnie has let her long gray hair down and looks like some mad Sibyl spiked by a fixed idea. Beckett's Winnie hums a love song softly and goes out with a smile and a stare. Winnie, as conceived by Strehler, gives Giulia Lazzarini a magnificent scene that she plays with such strength one doesn't like to point out that Beckett did not call for it. Amplified cacophony drowns out her words that issue from a mouth that has lost all grace, harsh violent cries as from a cornered animal defending its last ounce of life. This is certainly affirmative and might have satisfied critics of Beckett's supposed nihilism in the 1980s. But strictly speaking it's no more life affirming than Winnie's rule of brushing her teeth regularly.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it sometimes brings sensible revision of callow ideological debate. Peter Brook, except for a sortie against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, disdained politics. He found the London Royal Court playwrights who dealt in them narrow and insular. Yet with Sizwe he demonstrates the ephemeral nature of apartheid and its inability to compete with life forces. Giorgio Strehler, who took a political stance in life (not so unlike Beckett himself, who in his non-writing existence worked in the French Resistance and always defended human rights), could not bring himself to dilute an artist's vision however he might tamper with it around the edges. Looked at steadily, his Happy Days is bleak, because that's the way Beckett conceived it.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published February 26, 2007