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The unbearable light-heartedness of being

Peter Brook tries to put an optimistic spin on Beckett, with tedious results


This was one of those unnerving, out-of-body evenings at the theatre where everyone was lifted into ecstasy except me. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Samuel Beckett and is performed by the "International Centre for Theatre Research", founded in 1970 by the already legendary Peter Brook in Paris. Brook directs.

On paper, Beckett and Brook are made for each other, two masters of theatrical minimalism. The programme notes that 60 years ago Brook shocked the world - or Stratford-upon-Avon - by staging Romeo and Juliet on a bare stage decorated with a single tree, just as Beckett was writing a play about two tramps sitting on a bare stage beneath a single tree.

Fragments is no Waiting for Godot, however. The pieces resemble marginalia at best and juvenilia at worst. Up first was "Rough for Theatre I", despite its name the most finished of the five parts. Two men, dressed as if for a yoga class, sit on boxes on the treeless stage. One is blind; his friend has only one leg and propels himself with a stick, making a punt of his cube. The omniped tries to depress the blind man about his lot, asking why he has not committed suicide. Billy says he is not quite unhappy enough, and recalls a fragment of past joy, a little harp he used to own. It is quite touching.

The second piece stars the great Kathryn Hunter. Transformed into an old woman, she sat on a chair and gabbled for ten minutes about being lonely and, "at the end of the day", looking out of her window at other lonely people looking out of their windows. She rocked rhythmically on her chair, and since the scene is called "Rockaby", I suspect a play on "off her rocker". It would have made a good video-art installation.

Although Hunter is one of the great physical actors working today, it is her colleagues Marcello Magni and Khalifa Natour - the tramps from the first act - who get the chance to show off their mime skills in "Act Without Words II". Here two chaps sequentially get out of big white carrier bags, munch carrots, gob them out, and fail to dress themselves accurately from a pile of clothes at the front of the stage. They are prompted into this clownish dumb show and out of their bags by a giant pencil that prods them from above. The big bags, the fat pencil: could Beckett have been inspired by Ikea?

The penultimate section is a short but impenetrable monologue about the shortness and impenetrability of life, delivered by Hunter, once more dressed up as a hag. For the final scene she is joined by the other two members of the company, now dragged up as old women themselves. The three sit on a bench and gossip about each other's illnesses. It reminded me of Roy Barraclough and Les Dawson playing Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham on the telly.

I don't know who was patronising whom the most during these 55 minutes. Was it the audience - at least half of whom I reckoned were thesps - patronising the octogenarian Brook? Or was it Brook, whose fey spiritualism patronised Beckett by insisting on placing an optimistic spin on his nihilism? In any case, the self-regarding theatricality of the acting obliterated, for me, the meaning of each piece. Technically the three actors were accomplished - and they knew it - but could anyone actually have been moved by Hunter's old bird, or have found the clowns' problems with their trousers truly funny? The mime was good, mind you: up there with Brian Cant on Playaway c.1974.

The greatest fun to be had was watching the audience. During the first ten minutes, a pretty woman in the front row was doing a particularly energetic job of smiling and nodding and laughing and turning round to make sure her wholesome responses to theatrical innocence were being noted. But when I next checked, she was yawning. By the end, naturally, she was back in raptures, cheering wildly with almost everyone else. I think they were actually applauding their own good taste and their stamina.

Forget it. Until you, as I have, sat through nine hours of Peter Brook's Mahabharata in a Glasgow tram shed, you don't know what stamina is. The funny thing was, until I sat down at the Young Vic, I had completely forgotten that I ever had sat through it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.