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04.07.2019 Europe

Peter Brook's new play 'Why?' reflects on free spirit of theatre

By Rosslyn Hyams - RFI
Pascal Gely
JUL 4, 2019 EUROPE

It may seem curious that at 94-years-young, Peter Brook asks the question dear to all five-year-olds, "Why?". Yet his latest play at the Bouffes du Nord digs as deep as the audience wishes to go in two directions: why do actors act and why the Russian-Soviet artist, Meyerhold, was executed in 1940.

The spirit of Brook's CIRT international theatre research centre lives on at the charismatic Bouffes du Nord theatre.

'Why?', his latest play in English written and directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne, has three actors. Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni explain why actors dedicate their lives, their minds and their bodies to theatre.

The roots of modern physical theatre, performed by Hunter and Magni against an early 20th century film of actors performing Meyerhold's "body mechanics" is entertaining and brings theatre history to life.

The trio are engaging, and the script is informative. At some junctures however, their seemingly innate story-telling skills, give way to what feels like the delivery of a well-rehearsed and animated lecture.

The first part about the actors' drive then dove-tails into the tragic story of Meyerhold who changed the concept of stage presence at the end of the 19th and at the start of the 20th centuries.

Learning can be fun however, especially when it's a lesson in clowning from one of the best on the European stage, Marcello Magni.

Brook and Estienne choose to bring into their limelight the inspirational role of Vsevolod Meyerhold's devoted actress wife, Zinaïda Reich who like her husband met a violent death.

These dramatic destinies about theatrical innovator, Meyehold and his actress wife are told by Hayley Carmichael and embodied by Kathryn Hunter.

For the whys and wherefores to occupy the full space and the minds of those on stage and around it, Brook's stage has become even emptier.

Costumes are dour but costumes nonetheless. Oversize men's suit jackets for Carmichael and Hunter except for Hunter's chintzy floral throw when she is reading Zinaïda's letter to her husband in jail.

'Why?' is a homage to a man of theatre who hung on to his belief that the Soviet Revolution was a salvation for his bold art and for him.

Interestingly, the play opened as the exhibition of Soviet Art called 'Rouge' at the Grand Palais in Paris, now closed. The exhibition dedicated a section to avant-garde performing arts in the 1920s and 1930s including Meyerhold's research.

The three actors deploy their magic and give a lift to history, but tell a history about freedom of art and of expression that is hard to ignore in any period.

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