No fuss

Peter Brook once complained of his “deep hatred" for what he described as the "motionlessness" of opera. For several decades he abandoned the form altogether, preferring to work only in the theatre with the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.

In the early 1970s, Brook returned to opera when he took up residence as artistic director at what has become one of the world's great theatre spaces, the Bouffes du Nord in Paris. (At the time of his arrival it was a disused music hall.) There he began a period of bold experimentation, reducing where others inflated, stripping back on excessive ornamentation and stagecraft, and always seeking to subvert or work against convention.

His latest offering is A Magic Flute, which ran in the main theatre at the Barbican in London from 23 to 27 March. Note the use of the indefinite rather than definite article in the title: this is very much Brook's interpretation of Mozart - he calls it a "free adaptation" - with many excisions and quickenings.

Brook presents a theatrical space that is starkly minimalist. There is very little fuss. A pianist, Matan Porat, is positioned on stage, just off to the left.

The orchestra pit is empty. The stage decoration comprises nothing more than a series of tall, thin bamboo polls, which can be moved at will so as to become the trees of a forest, the bars of a cell or the walls of a house. The dominant colours are black and red; in one scene, the lights are dimmed and two hand-held lanterns burn fiercely.

The score is light and joyful, the stamina of the pianist as impressive as his technique. The music engages perhaps more than the singing, as does the interplay of the characters, with many spoken interludes (the libretto is in German; the conversations in French, with some English words).

Brook began directing professionally while a student at Oxford and now, at the age of 86 and having stepped down as artistic director of the Bouffes, he continues to experiment with form as he seeks to get ever closer to the essence of the dramatic art.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, New Issue