Peter Brook & Stephen Daldry
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Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, is three laconic, linked meditations on politics.

It was directed by Stephen Daldry and performed at the Royal Court from 24 November to 22 December 2000 and later transferred to the Albery Theatre. I was the assistant director. From 22 January till 30 March 2002 it played more recently at the Bouffe du Nord in Paris, in a French translation, directed by Peter Brook.

The first minimalist-act is apparently a familiar enough scenario – which turns out to be soaked in blood. In this double-take, a little girl (Joan) is staying with her aunt (Harper). She cannot sleep. Not because it is a strange house. Nor because she is homesick. Nor because she is uncomfortable or thirsty. For none of the usual reasons – all of which are canvassed in a remorseless drama of deferred disclosure. She has seen, it gradually emerges, her uncle beating a lorry-load of people in a shed till they bleed. Her aunt tries out various ‘explanations’ which the child’s further disclosures vitiate. In the end, the child is offered a more plausible, but clearly partial ‘truth’ – constructed to portray the uncle as good rather than evil. ‘You’re part of a big movement to make things better.’ He is ‘helping’ people and only beats the traitors – and the children of the traitors… Political evil, then, isn’t something far away, but is frequently close at hand. The concentration camp at L?dz in Poland was in the centre of town.

The second, marginally longer act is about political myopia: you may protest about local, immediate issues, think of yourself as engaged, yet still fail to see obvious larger injustices. Two hat-makers – one of them the grown-up Joan, the other Todd – are willing to initiate political action against corruption in their work place, evidently at some risk to themselves – they might lose their jobs. But they are blind to an injustice so large, but so close, so everyday it is invisible: they make hats for mass executions and wistfully regret that their workmanship, their art, is destroyed with those who are executed. ‘It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies’, says Joan, in a line that captures the essence of Churchill’s blank, poker-faced irony, the affectless surface and the black undertow of laughter. A Modest Proposal for our times.

The third swift act takes place in the midst of a war. Joan has temporarily deserted to see Todd at the house of her aunt Harper. Churchill shows the inevitable yet lunatic politicisation of everything in extreme conditions. Her examples are surreal and sickly comic. Zebras, wasps, children under five, elephants are all caught up in the political contagion – a contagion that reaches its dark climax in the line, ‘Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?’ The final sketch ends with Joan‘s memory of wading across a river – ill with uncertainty: ‘But I didn’t know whose side the river was on, it might help me swim or it might drown me.’ This corresponds to, say, the way Jazz and the Roman Catholic Church became symbols of radicalism under Jaruszelski’s martial law in Poland.

* * * * *

But how do you direct a minimal play? In the case of Peter Brook, minimally. Far Away is only nineteen pages of generously spaced typescript. And Peter Brook’s production felt about…nineteen pages long.

The space itself at the Bouffe du Nord is beautiful: Moorish arches, crumbling plasterwork, fading red paint. There is scarcely any lighting rig. Hugely high, it feels like an Italianate church – but the front row of the audience encroaches on the performance space. In the stalls you’re on the same level as the actors, so the feel is very intimate. The set was a strange flat purple square placed in this space, divided into two different shades of purple – lighter and darker. This was obviously a gesture towards one of the themes of the play – the issue of degree, lighter and darker shades of guilt and so on. Behind this, there were three huge photographer’s light umbrellas on stands – like sinister mechanical flowers. On either side of the main proscenium arch framing the set, clustered at the base of the walls, there were little groups of beer and water bottles. I wondered what they were doing there. People’s drinks from the night before? But why placed at the margins of the set itself?

(The bottles at the side of the stage were finally used – punningly – as binoculars, and then literally – drunk in a soldierly fashion.)

Ian McNeil’s set, for Stephen Daldry’s production, played with the idea of a toy theatre. A black box – fronted by a cloth with a painted idyllic country scene. This rose to reveal furniture, which trucked on and off, winched by two stagehands. It felt almost as if one were peering into a doll’s house. The chairs were attached to the kitchen table and sprung, so that you could pull them out, release them, and they would gently swing back of their own accord. Ian was keen that the armchair and table would truck on from the opposite side of the stage to where they would come to rest, ‘because its cuter for them to travel the longer distance.’ Stephen also quite liked the idea of having the stagehands on view: ‘Because that’s mechanically honest – whereas we can’t have the sound and light operating boards on view because that’s sophisticated, “posh” theatre.’ He and Ian operated in strict accordance to a set of these theatrical ‘rules’.

* * * * *

The Parisian audience was different from the average London equivalent – very vibrant, buzzy, chatty. There was a sense of social occasion even though I saw the piece near the end of its run.

The lights started to go down.

The sound of someone playing the piano, a simple tune.

Immediately and economically this suggested childhood in one of those satisfying moments of effective theatrical shorthand.

The lights came up on Kathryn Hunter (Harper), who mimed washing her hair. In contrast to the Daldry production – which had a deliberately 40s feel to the first scene – Brook’s was pointedly contemporary. Kathryn Hunter dried her hair with a Nike towel and she had a velvet scrunchie round her wrist. The little girl came in and the scene began.

Brook seemed to take the play at face value. On the page, the scene between the little girl and her aunt reads much more quickly than it should actually be played – because there are no pauses or silences indicated by the playwright. Stephen slowed the whole thing down – dramatically. Brook’s scene felt as if it sped by. Also I thought a lot of it was directed facing out, knowingly, at the audience. But maybe the French audience wasn’t so different to the English. They gave the same nervous laugh in exactly the same place – when the little girl says, ‘If it was a party, why was there so much blood?’

I wondered how Brook had directed his little girls, who played alternate nights. To me, the little girl I saw in Paris felt almost too professional. By that I mean she looked as if she were acting – very competently. The girl that Stephen – or rather, Lisa Makin, the casting director at the Royal Court – had found was extraordinary. She had natural stage presence, the gravitational pull of a black hole – something to do with her curiously dead, black eyes. But it was unconscious. One of Annabel’s great qualities was that she didn’t really do any acting. She walked where Stephen told her to walk, and looked where he told her to look, and paused where he told her to pause. The effect was eerie – a very carefully plotted reconstruction of reality.

Halfway through rehearsals Stephen got worried. One day Annabel was pausing spontaneously, sighing, her sentences were coming out with a different rhythm. After a while, Stephen asked Annabel if she was trying to do something different. ‘No,’ she said in her weird, bass voice, ‘I’ve just got a bit of a blocked nose today’. Stephen turned to Caryl and myself. ‘Thank God…’ he whispered. ‘I thought she was beginning to “act”.’

* * * * *

One of Stephen’s strengths is props. He knows how they support, as mini-metaphors, the psychology of a scene. So, for instance, he had little Joan unpacking and unravelling her aunt’s sewing kit at the table – as she unravelled explanations from the aunt (played by Linda Bassett). This sense of props’ symbolic potential meant that, quite often, Stephen strayed into trying terrible ideas. For instance, that Annabel might bring a teddy on, which she would manipulate as she described what she saw in the shed – playing on the idea that traumatised children enact on their dolls what they have witnessed. It was liberating that Stephen wasn’t scared to try the naff, or the sentimental – or the downright tasteless. As he said: ‘I like clichés. Embrace the cliché.’

He could afford this attitude because, in the end, his instincts were right – and he would drop stuff that everyone thought we were doomed to keep. For instance, in the last couple of days of rehearsal, he decided to change the opening tableau – which had been the aunt picking through bloodstained clothes. But what should she do instead? Stephen was very preoccupied with this. ‘Whatever we have her doing, it’s going to be immensely symbolic, significant. The audience will be hoovering up narrative.’ He turned to us all – now a familiar trick – waiting for someone to give him the right answer. We all strained to satisfy him. ‘She’s asleep.’ ‘She’s drinking tea.’ ‘She’s knitting.’ Then someone said, ‘She’s reading a book.’ We tried it.

‘Ohhh,’ Stephen said, gloatingly regretful, ‘but that tells me a whole different story – this is the book from which she quotes, “And your soul will expand, right into the sky…”’ A few more suggestions were rejected, all because they ‘told too many stories’. I asked why Linda wasn’t doing something completely neutral, that didn’t tell a story. ‘Because that’s the joy of it,’ said Stephen, inconsistently. ‘We want to tell a story.’

Brook’s story seemed too clear. Someone is involved in massacres in their garden shed? Blood all over the place? Open the play with them washing themselves.

In the end, Stephen had the curtain come up on Linda staring blankly out, humming ‘There is a happy land, far, far away…’

* * * * *

I was interested to see how Brook dealt with the problem of narrative continuity. How do you tell the audience that young and older Joan are the same person? Stephen had fretted about this. What to do? Perhaps an accessory. Little Joan carried on with her a toy lion. Could Big Joan take this with her into the hat factory, as a sort of mascot? Everyone in the rehearsal room had groaned. ‘Yes, but we need narrative clarity,’ Stephen insisted. Iona, from wardrobe, suggested a silk scarf that both wore. Stephen didn’t like it. He said it made the older Joan (Kathy Tozer) look like an air hostess. He was fixated by the idea of Younger Joan’s nightie. Finally, he said, hesitantly, ‘ I think…the answer may be for Kathy to come on in Younger Joan’s nightie – an outsize version’. Again everyone groaned. ‘What, like Colette in Les Mis? That was so shit…’ someone sneered. Stephen pounced. ‘Aha, but you see, that’s it – old Trev [Trevor Nunn] goes for narrative clarity every time.’

Brook dealt with the problem with even more economical adroitness. Little Joan paused before going off – Big Joan came and stood behind her – and watched her childhood self walk slowly away from her. Bingo.

But from this point on Brook’s production became disappointing, just where Stephen’s really ignited – the hat factory. To start with, Brook’s hats were perfunctory – a lot of crepe paper and chicken wire. Not to have real hats seemed both cheating and on the cheap. And the text specifies that, as they near completion, the hats get more and more elaborate. There was no gradation in the Brook hats. They were simply different – and obviously tacky rather than splendid.

* * * * *

Similarly, the parade of those to be executed was a miserly five people. The text actually specifies that, for the parade, ‘five is too few and twenty better than ten. One hundred?’ Brook’s five stood there and the photographer’s flashbulbs went off with a sound of gunfire. They scattered in the strobe light, leaving the hats, which were then swept off slowly by a man with a broom, to the accompaniment of a violin refrain. So that’s why they were made out of crepe and chicken wire, I thought. They get thrown away every night.

Joan: It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies.

Todd: No I think that’s the joy of it. The hats are ephemeral. It’s like a metaphor for something or other.

Joan: Well, life.

Todd: Well, life, there you are…You make beauty and it disappears, I love that.

The hats are also like plays – rich, elaborate, painstakingly put together. And ephemeral. Brook enacted the metaphor literally by sweeping away the hats with each fresh performance. A shame, though, that his hats weren’t more beautiful.

What Stephen had absolutely understood – one of the triumphs of his production – was that the hats are potentially a glorious theatrical gag. Firstly, he knew that the audience relishes watching something actually being done on stage – rather than faked, or mimed. So Stephen made the actors really paint feathers, hammer nails, soak and steam felt. It was a props nightmare. But he was right – it was very interesting to watch. Much more interesting than watching Jodhi May (Brook’s Joan) pretending to shape a limp piece of crepe paper. Secondly, it is a simple gift of a joke that the hat, each time it appears, is successively more elaborate. When Joan produced her final (genuine) Philip Treacy creation, it got a huge laugh every time. And Stephen had a wonderful instinct for what the handling of a prop can reveal, psychologically, about the character. He got a hat-maker in to talk us through making a hat, interjecting excitedly – ‘Is anyone writing this down? So, they have to bash the felt to get the water in, good. And would she have to sort of struggle with the tubing, manipulate it into shape?’

‘Oh yes,‘ said Susie the hat-maker.

Stephen beamed at Caryl, then, scowling, mimed furious pummelling and yanking, saying Joan‘s line between gritted teeth – ‘It’s just if you’re going to go on about it all the time, I don’t know why you don’t do something about it.’

Then, he mimed the other character, Todd, fussily stitching, saying through pursed lips, ‘This is your third day.’

Stephen – maybe from his days as a clown in a circus – knew that props can be a great source of comedy. Especially tools. When the two actors were doing their hats, Stephen paid meticulous attention to the symmetry, balance and contrast of their actions – particularly in the scene where they have a heated argument. ‘She needs to do something aggressive with a tool’ he said musingly. ‘He’s got his iron – she’s got to top that.’

‘A drill?’ suggested Paul Arditti, the sound designer, who was sitting in on rehearsals that day.

‘What would she be drilling?’ Stephen countered.

‘Doesn’t have to be drilling, necessarily’ said Paul. ‘You can use it to twist or untwist wire very quickly, if you have a hook on the end.’

‘Show me’ said Stephen.

It worked brilliantly. Stephen finessed it.

‘Go like this,’ he said to Joan/Kathy. He stood, scowling at Todd/Kevin, holding the drill. ‘Check if it works, like this – ’ He scowled up at the drill, which he ‘bzzd’ briefly in the air – ‘then, put the wire on, and -’; ‘bzzz’ – he straightened the wire – eyeing Kevin beadily while he did so, never breaking eye contact. The action expressed all the venting of rage we needed. Also, since the man is on the run in the argument, Stephen matched their actions accordingly. Kathy had to bash things with a hammer – ‘but I want Kevin doing something squishy while she’s bashing – like rinsing his tea-towel in a bowl’. Kevin’s hat was an arrangement of cloth flames, each reinforced with wire. During a particularly tense silence in the scene, Kevin straightened a wilting flame-petal.

‘That’s right’ Stephen said approvingly. ‘Get your willy out.’

* * * * *

As for the parade – Stephen was determined to have a spectacular array of people. Five? Thirty at least. It was my job to find them, my own particular nightmare. About a hundred restless middle-aged ladies and a hundred younger ambitious actresses were keen.

We were thin on little children and old men.

And very thin on young men.

I foolishly told Stephen this. I had already noticed his counter-suggestibility. If you gave him two options, advising he take the first, and warning that the second is much more expensive, time-consuming and difficult to realise, he will invariably be attracted to the second.

He thought a bit and said that, on reflection, he particularly needed lots of young men, little children and old men.

* * * * *

But it was a revelation to see the last scene in French. Stephen’s actors had severe problems playing the surreal hysteria with honesty. Everything has taken sides – mosquitoes, Canadians, computer programmers, deer, are all invoked with equal seriousness. In Brook’s production there was much eye-bulging of the actors at each other. But these hysterics worked curiously well in French. Kathryn Hunter (Harper) declared venomously in her guttural voice, ‘Les crocodiles sont toujours mauvais…’ And it sounded convincing. It even had a certain ring to it. I remembered Stephen’s actors trying to get their heads around this crazy world – seriously discussing, for instance, how Harper knows that the cats are now on the side of the French.

‘Did a little bird tell me? Literally’ asked Linda Bassett (Harper). ‘Will there be an osprey on the cast list?’

Stephen, amazingly, looked thoughtful. ‘Well…what do we feel about a bird? On stage? You know…a little yellow one…in a cage.’

‘There could be a chute,’ Kathy (Joan) said excitedly. ‘Connected from the wall to their cage. So they can get in and out with messages.’

Caryl Churchill swiftly pooh-poohed the interpretation as too literal.

‘That was’t what I had imagined,’ she said. ‘I do have some self – restraint.’

‘You didn’t take all the drugs that day,’ Linda said drily.

The scene took a long time to find. Stephen was anxious to avoid ‘Numbed-By-War-Acting’. His way to unlock a difficult scene was to try it with different props and physical actions. Harper cleaning a gun. Todd swabbing wasp-bites. Harper drinking whisky – the last of her supplies. Funnily, Linda found this tremendously helpful – although it was eventually cut. She’d been having difficulties with her speech about the ‘little fluffy darling waterbirds’ because it was so sentimental. It didn’t help when it was pointed out that fascism is sentimental. She found it much easier to get maudlin over little fluffy waterbirds if she was getting quietly sloshed at the same time. And Brook had his actors drinking beer at this point – the beer kept at the side of the stage that had caught my eye. Interesting – alcohol is an obvious accessory in this hysterical scene. I remembered Stephen asking Linda if she could ‘have a sort of breakdown’ on the line ‘Is this a place of safety?’

Linda looked a little daunted but nodded.

Then, when she came to that line, she flushed up red and we could hear her ring rattling against her cup. She blinked and changed the direction of her gaze, then suddenly stood up, and went over to the drawer in her desk to get out the whisky bottle.

After the next couple of lines, Stephen stopped them. ‘Great, that was great…Linda, how do you feel? I thought it really worked…and when you went over to get the whisky -’ Linda looked at him, palpitating. ‘I went over there to get the whisky for me,’ she said. ‘Because I was so horrified at the cheesy acting I’d just done.’

* * * * *

Brook’s costumes were confidently modern. In the last scene Harper and Todd wore vague combat gear, Joan a fleece and jeans. Stephen had kept changing his mind over the costumes – because they can tell so many stories. And his actors had their own ideas. Linda Bassett was particularly keen, for the last scene, on wearing what we called the ‘Mrs Ceausescu number’, a sort of box-pleated grey office skirt and jacket, a little the worse for wear – because it explained the whole of her story between the first and last act, her rise and then fall from political power. In the end, Stephen forbade it, much to her chagrin, because, he said, it explained too much. The long overcoat to which she was also attached was dismissed as ‘too Kremlin’. In fact, the whisky was partly cut because Stephen stopped thinking of the last scene as ‘Cold War’. Brook, before the last scene, had sound effects of popping and crackling, accompanied by a dim red light – which could either have been rain or a blazing fire. He had gone for Winter. Whereas Stephen had suddenly, one day, decided ‘Heat.’ He stared into the middle distance and murmured ‘I’m thinking dust, drought. Khaki. Tans…oh no, you won’t have time to do tans. Kevin, I want you,’ he squinted at him meditatively, ‘…I want you…in shorts.’

‘How short?’ Kevin asked.

‘Short,’ Stephen said.

‘Tanga briefs?’ said Kevin, bitterly.

‘I’m not showing my legs,’ Kathy chimed in.

There was also the question of the mise-en-scéne. How has Harper’s house changed since the first scene? How to indicate the sense of war, shifting allies, treachery? And communication with the outside world? OK, no yellow bird in a cage. But what? ‘If it’s the internet’ said Stephen, ‘its got to be somehow primitive internet. It’s war, everything’s broken down. It’s got to be sort of [the Terry Gilliam movie] Brazil-type internet. I mean, we don’t want…big computer screens, we don’t want it to be like some -’

‘David Hare play,’ I said.

‘I knew you were going to say that,’ said Stephen.

‘How?’

‘Because I was about to say it myself.’

He asked me what I saw instead. I replied apologetically that my head was full of clichés – maps on walls with little coloured pins and flags stuck in them.

‘Yes, I had that one too’ said Stephen, thoughtfully. The image was rejected as too clichéd. But strangely enough, in Brook’s production, a large map was unfurled on to the purple square and the scene played out on top of it. Perhaps the boldest thing to do is go for the clich#233;.

The hardest part of the play is Joan’s final speech, where she describes her journey back through a country at war. ‘It wasn’t so much the birds I was frightened of, it was the weather, the weather here’s on the side of the Japanese. There were thunderstorms all through the mountains, I went through towns I hadn’t been before…it was tiring there because everything’s been recruited, there were piles of bodies and if you stopped to find out there was one killed by coffee or one killed by pins, they were killed by heroin, petrol, chainsaws, hairspray, bleach, foxgloves…’

Kathy Tozer, Stephen’s Joan, tended to relive the journey, to see it again as she described it. Stephen wouldn’t let her get away with it. This was too poetic, inward. Kathy unwillingly admitted she had been hearing Barbera’s ‘Air For Strings’ as she spoke. She had to find a reason, an ‘action’ for her speech. Stephen wanted her to play something active, urgent, to play a need rather than a feeling – to make the other actors understand the gravity of the situation, etc.

But I quite liked the Barbera ‘Air For Strings’ version. And funnily enough this was exactly what Peter Brook gave us – Jodhi May seeing the journey again as she described it.

My sneaking wish had always been to try the last section of the speech with Joan actually reliving her dilemma, on the bank of a river – re-enacting her movements. But I never dared suggest it. It seemed the height of naff.

‘I knew I’d have to go straight across. But I didn’t know whose side the river was on, it might help me swim or it might drown me. In the middle the current was running much faster, the water was brown, I didn’t know if that meant anything. I stood on the bank a long time. But I knew it was my only way of getting here so at last I put one foot in the river. It was very cold but so far that was all. When you’ve just stepped in you can’t tell what’s going to happen. The water laps around your ankles in any case.’

* * * * *

When we reached this moment in Brook&’s production, I was amazed to see Jodhi May stand and start to move to the edge of the purple square. ‘No,’ I thought. ‘I can’t believe it. Surely not.’ But as she spoke, she was also re-enacting the endless moment at the brink of the river.

And then, slowly, she stepped off the purple square.

Very slowly, she started to walk out towards the audience, silhouetted against the fading photographer‘s umbrellas – as, once again, we heard the simple childhood piano piece faintly start up in the distance.

Yes. Clichés are good. Embrace the cliché.


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