Book Review: TIP OF THE TONGUE, Peter Brook
We use them every day. Sometimes we mean them, other times we don't. We whisper, sing, or scream them. Words permeate our lives from the very start, and theatre director Peter Brook accompanies us on an intimate journey through language and meaning in his new book Tip of the Tongue.
"The essence is meaning" he says, explaining the subtle differences between English and French, which to him are "like chalk and cheese". His years spent working in France fuel a first-hand account of the two languages' distinctiveness.
He recounts that it's specifically during the preparation of a production of Timon of Athens that he went through an epiphany of sorts. After commissioning a new translation, he found himself stopping the French actors from saying the lines too quickly, illustrating that they don't have to just convey the idea, but the finer points of each word. He recognises what a big mistake that was, as he had failed to see the fundamental difference between the heart of those languages: "In English we speak words, the French speak thoughts."
This incident kicks off a reflection on structure, sound and Shakespeare (the latter forming the skeleton of the whole book). Brook explains in simple terms the opposite workings of the languages, relating them to acting: just like the architecture of the French phrase is as precise as a mathematical formula, not allowing any humming or hawing, so is performing on a stage.
From the sounds, Brook then moves on to definition. In his experience, the reason why so much acting becomes flat (in both languages) is because of the temptation to block it with a closed definition. "This is where an actor must become sensitive to the tastes of letters as they constantly change place, relishing in the shifting detail."
False friends and meaning take up a substantial part of the book. Brook brings up the crucial difference of "quite" in American and British English, which, as he remembers, led to choosing a different actor for a production overseas. When Brook asked a producer what he thought of his first choice, the man's "He's quite good" was interpreted by Brook in the English way, as "Not very good".
Speaking of theatre, Brook criticises how "tradition and long-standing habits had filled this [space] with clutter [...] They clogged the imagination." He underlines how important it is to start with an empty stage to support the actor and the words, but admits that a bare space is "an uncomfortable challenge", so he urges the reader to notice that "the finest expression of emptiness is silence", and how these moments, especially in theatre, acquire new meaning for everyone in the room.
In his brief analysis of how theatre has changed, he brings up an interesting point. As 21st-century audiences, "we've become numbed by shock tactics", so what had been a colossal weapon for theatre now needs to be reshaped into something the public can assimilate. That's the directors' and writers' new goal: to open people to the unknown, strengthen them and make them think.
He praises the "togetherness" of theatre as its main strength. In a society as complicated and advanced as today's, where each individual lives in a bubble, experiencing a performance together (whether by creating it or witnessing it) makes a difference and "Worlds can be changed".
The final part of Tip of the Tongue goes back to where everything started, in a soft and warm love letter to Shakespeare and his language - from noticing that nowhere in his writings except in his "Special work", his sonnets, do get the bard's own point of view, to explaining in simple terms how no one has ever been able to recreate the kind of humanity he managed to put into his characters. But most of all, Brook centres his reflection on Shakespeare's ability to make the people who went to see his plays feel like an audience.
Having a public who spanned all social classes meant his works needed to appeal to all of them, so he raised up his subjects with a stately style but then brought them back to earth. As Brook explains: "Often in the same sentence, there would be an 'end', so that everyone can find the same meaning and come together." And that's what Brook does in his book too.
His exploration of words, theatre and everything attached is loving and heartfelt, taking his readers on a journey through his experiences and giving meaning to what he's seen and done. At times he definitely takes the scenic route to get to his point, but it's eventually worth it as he presents a rich picture - and not by preaching from an imperious stage.