Book review: The Quality Of Mercy: Reflections On Shakespeare by Peter Brook

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FOR such a slender book (barely reaching 120 pages) this volume positively seethes and sparkles with ideas.

The Quality Of Mercy: Reflections On Shakespeare

Peter Brook

Nick Hern Books, £12.99

Given that the author, Peter Brook, is one of the finest directors of Shakespeare, this is perhaps unsurprising.

He discusses several plays which he has directed – Romeo And Juliet, Titus Andronicus, Measure For Measure, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and provides not only acute insights into the texts, but intriguing details of performance history, and a few morsels of grand theatrical gossip.

The book is prefaced by a slightly unnecessary defence of Shakespeare from the reactionary ranks of oddballs convinced the plays were written by the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I’s illegitimate son and so forth, although, as a man of the theatre, Brook does have one trump card against them: could such a conspiracy really have been sustained against the sharp and loose tongues of actors, prompters and stage-keepers?

Although Brook could not be described as a naturalist director (he had Chinese acrobatics in his Dream, and Lavinia’s amputated hands in Titus Andronicus were all the more fearful for being depicted as red ribbons tied to her wrists) he has an absolutely realist view of the psychology of the characters.

Titus Andronicus is a good case in point. It has sometimes been staged as a ghoulish pantomime, a Grand-Guignol version of Seneca; but Brook insisted on the actors (Olivier and Vivien Leigh) playing it “straight” – and the play revealed itself as deeper than had been thought. Watching Trevor Peacock as Titus in the BBC production recently, the feeling he brought to the role (especially the “fly” scene in Act III) is an unspeaking testament to Brook’s innovatory version.

Even the gossip has a point. There is lovely anecdote of the young Brook approaching Alexander Korda (which I’ve never seen in print before): Brook told Korda he had an idea for a film. Korda cut him off saying “Even a cook can have an idea. Come back when you have developed your ‘idea’ enough to have a real story to offer me”. This leads to a clever deconstruction of “concept” performances, and some digs at conceptual art as well.

Occasionally the enthusiast outweighs the scholar. Brooks writes of Prospero’s final speech that “as far as we can tell this could be last creative word he wrote. The last word of The Tempest is ‘free’”. Except the best chronologies put The Tempest in 1611-12, with Henry VIII, or All Is True, and the co-authored Two Noble Kinsmen in 1612-3. “This little one shall make it holiday” and “Let’s 
go off / And bear us like the time” don’t make for so good a story.

At his best, Brook is a wonderful guide to the art of Shakespeare, both on the page and on the stage.

He is humble, and humbled in front of Shakespeare, not least when he writes about 
the astonishing simplicity of the greatest lines: “there is a world elsewhere”, “Hermione was not so much wrinkled”, “never, never, never, never, never”. «