Brook, Shakespeare and the radical Roundhouse - Roundhouse - Celebrating 50 Years


June - July 1968

Peter Brook was a theatre director who took traditional texts and turned them inside out. His production of The Tempest at the Roundhouse was no exception. Here, Tilly Lunken looks at how and why he reinvented the classic play and the audience response…

Scene from Peter Brook’s The Tempest at the Roundhouse

Credit: Douglas H Jeffery © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, under the Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Peter Brook’s direction and vision for theatre has had a dramatic impact on productions in the second half of the 20th Century. His vision of what theatre was had an unprecedented influence on directors and how we approach theatre.

The summer of 1968 storms of student unrest swept through Paris and Peter Brook and company were forced to transfer a two-month residency to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. What resulted was a radical explosion of a classic text The Tempest that challenged the boundaries of what theatre can be.

Although co-produced by the RSC, the team was made up of practitioners from Europe and America. With Brook at the helm they held little traditional respect for the words of the play.

A word does not start as a word – it is an end product which begins as an impulse, simulated by attitude and behaviour which dictates the need for expression. Shakespeare’s words are records of the words he wanted to be spoken – Peter Brook in The Empty Space

He argued that what is behind the words is far more important. The actors in The Tempest hurled text mixed in with guttural calls and chants, out to an audience not prepared to face such a spectacle.

There were movable sets, on high scaffolding cut through the audience who “arrived… alarmed to discover there were no seats.” The relationship between the performer and audience was merged into one space. What played out in this context was a completely deconstructed Tempest – delivered by actors not dressed in proper costumes.

And so much like the experience of the men who have their entire world order disrupted by the storm at the start of the play – the order of the theatre is disrupted. It’s an intriguing idea and is an early example of how Brook explored the use of space in theatre and how it can affect audience experience. It is important to recognise that the Roundhouse became instrumental in supporting the development and production of this work. Whilst development on the production had begun in Paris, the space allowed for such experimentation and exploration (unlike a more traditional theatre space) to meet an audience. It could be argued it’s almost as if even the building itself contributed to the production.

B.A Young wrote in the Financial Times what was experienced was a “series of studies based loosely on episodes from The Tempest” and describes a longing to be told “what it was all about.” So, disconnected from the text, it is impossible to impose meaning on what was being performed.

What is a play?… what is an actor?… what is a spectator?… I know what a spectator is; I am one, and I speak on their behalf and I would have been glad to have been given more explanation of how what I saw at the Roundhouse deals with these problems – Financial Times

The article continues with a strong sense that there is a need for artistic exploration and radical engagement with theatre as an art form (although they remained convinced The Tempest was a successful example). It is interesting that despite a wish to know more, such as engagement with the work and to questions raised by the work, is clearly the kind of proactive response the production was after.

Not everyone responded in this way. Eric Shorter in The Telegraph, who had little patience with the work, described it as beyond theatre criticism because it was not theatre and had mere “occasional reference to Shakespeare.” But even his review acknowledged how extraordinary his experience had been.

Whilst the RSC’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970 cemented Brook’s reputation as a man unafraid to reinvent classic texts, it is worth noting that two years before a storm was already brewing. The Tempest was much more radical in form and performance as well as content and Brook used the space to break apart theatrical traditions. If we return to Brook’s analysis of words and the intent behind them, perhaps we can give theatre Prospero’s voice to command “set me free.”