Book Review – Playing By Ear  

Published by Nick Hern Books

Anyone who has ever worked with, or even met, veteran theatre director Peter Brook (see Lou Stein on p15 of this issue, for example) comments on his legendary, profoundly influential presence. That same humble, sometimes quirky, glittering charisma sings through his writing too.

His latest book is a series of short essays (some very short indeed – one is just a single paragraph) loosely themed on music, sound, words, theatre and how they relate to each other. Effectively it’s a series of jottings and I suspect some of these originated in notebooks from long ago. Take the one where he tried to do The Beggar’s Opera with Vivien Leigh and Olivier, but the latter wanted to be too operatic and vocally refined so it withered on the vine, but they went on to do a notable Titus Andronicus together.

Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC in the early 70s set a new standard for Shakespeare and is probably to this day the most talked about and remembered production of the twentieth century. Who knew, though, that the inspiration for it came from Chinese acrobats Brook had seen on Broadway and from Jerome Robbins’s choreography for New York City Ballet in Dances at a Gathering?  

He’s interesting on Don Giovanni too. Not for Brook, the wicked womaniser who deserves his comeuppance – and literal descent into hell fire. No, argues, Brook, if it were as simple as that Mozart would not have written all that sublime music for DG and the women he seduces. In Brook’s version for Theatre Bouffes du Nord, in Paris he and the title role tenor, Peter Mattei concluded that Mozart loved his Don and refused to judge him according to the conventional morality of his day.

This is a slim, surprisingly accessible book. I read it straight through, but you could just as easily dip. Brook has plenty to say but there’s often a twinkle in his eye and he’s never obscure. He didn’t enjoy visiting the couple who played an unending note on their violin and cello any more than I would have done.

Reviewed by Susan Elkin

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