Back in 1953 a still-young stage director made a film of The Beggar’s Opera with an extraordinary cast that ranged from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Williams. Most of them were dubbed for the singing sections. And among the unseen singers was Jennifer Vyvyan who provided the voice for Lucy Lockit (played on screen by Daphne Anderson).
As for the stage director, it was Peter Brook – who as it happened was the same age as Vyvyan, born 1925. But while Vyvyan’s life turned out to be short, Brook’s continued tirelessly and productively. He’s now 86. And his latest work has just arrived on tour at the Barbican Theatre: a Magic Flute originally made, like his previous Carmen and Pelleas, for the small-scale of his own little theatre, the Bouffes du Nord, Paris.
Significantly, both those previous productions changed the title of the opera: Carmen became The Tragedy of Carmen, Pelleas became Impressions of Pelleas. His Flute does likewise: not The Magic Flute, it’s just A Magic Flute. And the message is that what you’ll see makes no pretence to be definitive and won’t in fact deliver everything you’re used to.
Radically reduced in every way, the non-delivery here includes the three ladies, the three boys, and the chorus – none of whom appear although some of their music gets re-allocated to other cast members. Two actors – rasta men with dreadlocks – fill the narrative gaps and necessary stage business of the missing roles. And with so much excised, the running time comes down to 90 minutes, without interval.
Needless to say, the show does largely without props and scenery, all of it kept to the barest minimum. And there’s no orchestra: just a solo pianist who accompanies with the muted, background deference you’d hear in a discreet, upmarket cocktail bar.
In fact, the whole show has this muted quality. The singing is soft to the point of marking – even the Queen of the Night keeps it down – and the theatrical style understated, sometimes underwhelming. I’ve never seen a less triumphalist finale: it just flickers and it’s gone, like a mirage that vanishes. This is the gentlest, least assertive and most delicate of theatre.
But with the delicacy comes refinement. Brook’s performers aren’t, in honesty, the greatest voices (it’s as well they’re not required to sing out: most of the ones I heard – there are two casts – wouldn’t survive the evening) but they’re subtle actors, thoroughly rehearsed. Exposed by stripped-down theatre, every move and gesture registers.
But while his general inclinations are reductivist – slimming down, taking away, focusing on essentials – he does also add things. For example, he finds an extra aria for Papagena (presumably to make the part more rounded and worthwhile) and has the pianist play Mozartian riffs to underscore the spoken dialogue.
I wasn’t sure about the Papagena aria, it felt intrusive and lasted too long. But the keyboard fantasies I did enjoy – especially as they were delivered with breath-taking subtlelty and finesse (albeit never more than mezzo-forte) by a pianist, Franck Krawczyk, I’d happily hear on his own in recital.
The pianist apart, I’d have to say this was a show more engaging for its theatre than its music: too many of the numbers were rhythmically mauled or simply under-sung. And even as theatre it didn’t tell the story with quite the clarity intended: when you excise so much, you have to make sure that the narrative connections still hold good. Occasionally they didn’t. But anything with Peter Brook’s name on it is worth seeing. And if it’s true that this is his last Bouffes du Nord show – which, at 86, is hardly surprising – it marks the end of a significant chapter in theatre history.