The Empty Space

Royal Academy Opera double bill: LE DOCTEUR MIRACLE (Georges Bizet) and LA TRAGÉDIE DE CARMEN (Marius Constant). Gareth Hancock conductor. James Hurley director (Le docteur Miracle); Jeanne Pansard-Besson director (La tragédie de Carmen). Performed by students of the Royal Academy Opera, accompanied by the Royal Academy Sinfonia. Wednesday 15 May, 7pm, Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music.

Peter Brook, for those who don’t know, is a name to conjure with. Certainly in theatre circles, (upper circles, grand circles) most especially in drama schools where it was, at one time, pretty much compulsory to have read The Empty Space, a compilation of four lectures he gave in Manchester in the 1960s. His version of Carmen is more recent, the early ‘80s, and just like the book, was fairly controversial. (The only actual production of his I’ve seen was The Conference of the Birds in Sydney in 1980, which I found electrifying.) He was kind of an establishment figure (Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House etc. etc.) who became more and more a sort of guru, doing research in the areas of theatre and performance, touring Afghanistan with Helen Mirren for instance, setting up shop in a theatre in Paris, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, in 1974.

The Conference of the Birds, an adaptation of a 12th Century Persian poem, was, among much else, an attempt to find a kind of theatre performance that would transcend cultural boundaries, that could travel from Paris to Dacca to Johannesburg and still be comprehensible and effective (unlike Gilbert and Sullivan, for example, which can be an acquired taste) an endeavour (erasing boundaries of all kinds) currently much in vogue. If you read The Empty Space there’s no doubt that Brook was influenced by, among others, Jerzy Grotowski, another theatre practitioner who devoted his working life to research in performance theory, especially in relation (this is Poland remember, a very Catholic country) to ritual. And, as boring as the whole topic of this kind of theorising might sound, a universal language of action, of ritual (which is basically what live theatre is) which can speak to every culture, is, it is widely agreed, needed now more than ever.

Peter Brook’s version of Bizet’s Carmen (attractive to small opera companies and operas schools as a cut down version of its grand cousin) draws attention specifically to the ritual implicit in the opera, in the story. Ritual, the performance of specific actions in a specific order, is, or can be, performative (of course, it’s performed) but performative in the sense that it can engender a specific outcome. So the performance of the ritual of the Catholic mass can transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ for example (if you are a believer, of course). More simply, the performance of a sequence of actions can, in a play or, in this case, opera, illuminate the story. (There is also, for example, performative discourse, words which are performative: a magic spell for example, such as the ones in Harry Potter; when a judge pronounces ‘you’re guilty’ and so you are; this is performative discourse.)

Brook, in his book, defines theatre as an empty space wherein if someone walks (note walks) across such empty space while someone else watches, that’s theatre. He specifies an action, walks. Action is universal. Action is performative. Action can make something happen.

What isn’t performative is emotion.

Action comes before emotion. Emotion follows the performative action. Action, emotion.

Emotion, as a performative agency, is just advertising. Look! that car is beside that person who is feeling what? Happy, powerful, in love. That toothpaste is in the same frame as that person who is satisfied, fulfilled? The emotion is performative in that the viewer is moved to buy the product. Theatre doesn’t work like this.

I’m not saying theatre doesn’t engender emotion. Of course it does. If it’s successful. If it’s working as it should. But the idea that if a performer feels an emotion, that emotion felt is somehow transmitted to an audience is simply not true. What’s more, emotion is cultural, even class based. One person’s sad face is another’s contented look.

This version of Carmen, no matter the singing, the playing, if it isn’t focused on the ritual, the action, the way the characters move together, the action sequences, it is nothing. A kind of strange sort of Reader’s Digest condensed musical entertainment.

As for the first piece, Le docteur Miracle, whatever it was that drew the 18 year old Bizet to a play that was already more than a century old, by an English playwright, the result is a homage to commedia dell’arte, ie. Punch and Judy satire, a revelling in a kind of cruel and violent take on family life, no doubt just as potentially punchy in the late Nineteenth Century as it could have been now.

Here again, the effect is softened, undercut by an attempt to find the emotion, the realism in the piece rather than revelling in the potential for the physical, for finding the action first and letting the sense and the emotion follow. There is much more in this piece to discover. This was an opportunity missed in some ways.

Short operas performed by companies without the resources to camouflage the shortcomings in performance by expensive lighting and staging effects (you know who I mean) are absolutely the future if opera is going to become once more a voice which demands to be listened to, as it has been in the past. In fact, opera, because it has the attention of those with most power, has most responsibility, to confront the expectation that it will be comfortable rather than spiky, friendly rather than confronting.

It’s wonderful to see these kinds of operas being performed, and given such wholehearted realisations. Opera should have a voice in the debate and these productions are a definite contribution to showing where that debate could lead.

Paul Corcoran