Today’s the day: Peter Brook’s theatrical economy, ‘A Magic Flute’

Most people can have hardly failed to notice the news today about Arts Council England’s (ACE) announcement of their new portfolio of projects and support for organisations and individuals. From 849 regularly funded organisations there are now 695. This article in the Guardian summarises today’s outcomes:


Of course, none of this comes as any surprise to most; especially those of us that remember the 1980s and the now legendary (but sadly still real) cuts under Margaret Thatcher. As a student in the late 1980s I went to see the heart-rending and life-changing RSC production of Othello, starring Ian McKellern as Iago, Willard White as Othello, Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona and Zoe Wannamaker as Emilia. I had never realised that theatre performance could bring tears to the eyes (I was about 18 years old, mind). The cathartic effect had never had its full impact on me until then. It was at the Young Vic theatre. The RSC performed a series of benefit (for want of a better word) performances in order to help boost the funds of the theatre. It was and is such an exciting intimate space that has made its reputation and based its establishment on supporting up-and-coming writers, actors and directors. After the performance, as we made our way out of the theatre, stage crew were in place rattling collecting buckets, appealing for our loose change. The memory of it still breaks my heart. How could an artistic establishment (of British theatre at large) that had supported and enabled directors, actors, singers, crew, designers, etc. to make such an powerful and important work come to life once more on stage be reduced to begging in the street? And we are back to that now. Today must be a day of reflection as to what the arts mean to our society. But that reflection must rapidly give way to determination and – not to put too fine a point on it defiance.


In the face of such disparaging treatment of the arts in the UK we can look to the continent and to well-established names for inspiration. I am not saying that home-grown ability does not suffice, by no means! But inspiration and innovation comes in many forms and from many sources. None better, perhaps, than Peter Brook and his recent production with Theatre des Bouffes du Nord from Paris of ‘A Magic Flute’ at the Barbican. This production audaciously pre-empted the decisions of the current coalition government, that in reality is dominated by and positively stinks of old-school Toryism, and presented a defiant and rebellious re-imagining of Mozart’s great comic opera, with all the respect for the original but with an eye to sparseness and economy that laughs in the face of cuts. It is almost as if the director were saying, ‘Do your worst! I shall still produce a sublime piece of art that can fit, cast included, into the back of a transit van!’ This is the old master; paring down the work, reinterpreting it as an original piece of theatre – instead of trying to compete with grand scale, high budget productions. An economical piece of theatre for our time.

He has had his detractors during this run.


But there has been almost universal admiration from most of the prominent arts’ desks and blogs of the national newspapers.


However, it is not so much what he has accomplished on stage that now has significance after today – it is what it represents culturally for the nation in the aftermath of the last twenty-four hours. Brook has shown that a work of art can be accomplished not just in spite of low production budgets but using them as a stimulus for creativity. He makes full use of the simple staging, so that his free adaptation of ‘A Magic Flute’ as he uniquely terms it, could be performed on the stage of an opera house, a major theatre similar to the Barbican, or in a school gymnasium or a community hall. And as reviewer Michael Church states:

‘Apart from the piano, this entire show – performers and props – would fit into a people-carrier, and could be staged anywhere. This lovely ensemble production should be brought back to tour Britain’s provinces in the culture-starved months ahead.’

We will undoubtedly have to reassess how we present performance and make budgets go further in the coming lean years for the arts. This production of ‘A Magic Flute’ (emphasis on the A as a suggestion) is a possible solution. I think, at the risk of falling for the intentional fallacy, that is what Brook had in mind. Here is an example of how you defy the punishing cuts. Mozart, stripped-down, but still respecting the source, performed by young actors and singers with a solo piano accompanist, flexible staging, symbolism, lyricism intact and all in ninety minutes. I think that Brook is offering us a solution; after having lived through it all and been there and done that! As the marvellously elegant retired Australian actress who was seated next to me in the stalls; a Brook veteran and a mine of information, said to me as we applauded until out hands hurt: ‘Now that’s what it’s all about!’


About gabymalcolm

Author and Illustrator - on all things 19th Century and popular culture. Currently re-writing history ...
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