John Helpern continues the story of Peter Brook’s mysterious journey through Africa.
25 September 1977
Brook and Beautiful Chief
We were now deep into the heart of Nigeria and suffering from serious outbreaks of malaria when Brook suddenly spurted ahead of the convoy, searching for a new location to camp for the night. Re disappeared into the bush. But when he emerged again he was in a terrific state of excitement.
He had found the perfect setting.
Built into one side of a deep valley was the village of Dungung. The name Dungung means 'to multiply'. We camped among the rocks on the opposite side of the valley, facing the narrow twisting goat path that led into the village.
Immediately Brook changed all future plans, sensing the time and place were right to quit the road for a while. We would stay there four nights. At last all the pressure and anxiety of playing on the road would be freed. For the first time in the journey the actors could relax a little. There would be a chance to build something, maybe.
Would we always feel separated from the people? Sometimes, miraculous times, it wasn't so and yet the fear that we remained outsiders never left us. Perhaps it could never be different. For all our good intentions we came like wealthy prospectors into the villages. Such picturesque settings. Pastoral idylls! You had only to see a child fight for the scrape of food we threw away to have such an illusion shattered. Were we just tourists of a special kind, urban romantics and intellectuals in search of 'the simple life'? Whenever a show failed we must have been all of that. Yet here and there a show or unexpected meeting transformed the stereotypes sometimes, miraculous times. The African will always welcome a stranger but on these occasions there was never fear of remaining an outsider. In a few moments a bridge could be built, imagination shared! Friendship! Life! Unless we stayed in Africa for years, the only real way we had of touching the people was through the shows. It was why failure brought such emptiness. But perhaps here in the few days spent in Dungung there would be a chance to understand more of the land we came to. If only for a short while we might free ourselves of the neurosis, that comes with being a European, tense and clumsy, eager to please in a black country.
Dungung was a beautiful village.’ Why Africa?' Brook said to us when we arrived. 'You will never have a greater opportunity to answer the question, "Why are we here?" We must use our eyes every second of the day. Because if there is a real Africa left any more, I think we've arrived.'
After a crazed journey through the Nigerian bush, the troupe rehearses “conference of the Birds”.
As luck would have it the Chief of the village was just about the most beautiful man any of us had seen in our lives, even in the movies.
When he came to visit us with his councillors he towered above them, serious and dignified in his robes, very gentle, tall and supple as a willow tree. 'My God’ whispered the American Michèle Collison as the rest of us tried to keep cool.
'Look at that..?’
The vision bowed to Brook, who was looking thunderstruck, and spoke in Hausa as the schoolteacher cleaned his spectacles and translated into English:
'We are a peaceful people and we see that you come in peace. We welcome you.’
Touched by this, and not knowing quite what to do with three live chickens presented to us by another village, Brook presented them to the Chief.
A little explanation about why we had come:
‘We are a group of actors. We are trying to discover a new way of communicating without the use of language. May we perform at your village?'
And, as always happened, the Chief replied that he was most pleased. And as always happened, no further questions were asked.
It never ceased to amaze and delight Brook - in Europe and America the agony of trying to explain and justify the nature of his work never ends. But in Africa it was totally accepted within seconds. In the West, the intellect rules and dominates. But the African goes about understanding differently, and bides his time.
Then the Chief and his councillors and the three live chickens left for the village.
A clearing was found in the rocks of the hillside where among snakes and goats the group exercised with sticks and unearthly sound, like witches. 'Are the snakes poisonous?' I asked one of the schoolchildren watching us. 'No,' he replied cheerfully, 'they strangle you.'
The village looked inviting, as all private worlds do. Could I risk entering? I left the group, walking across the valley and up the twisting goat path. I felt uneasy. Too many eyes stared. I was intruding. Eventually, I saw an old schoolhouse and peeped inside. A crowd of young children leapt to their feet instantly. 'Good afternoon, sir!' they yelled. They were well trained, in the English style. But the schoolmaster wasn't there for the moment and the children were too young to understand much English. I wasn't sure what to do. I said hello, but they just stood and stared. I must have looked a strange sight.' 'Hello!' I said again, smiling hard. But they kept staring. 'Well if we can't speak to each other,' I said in desperation, 'then sing, us a song!' At which they smiled and relaxed at last. Song- they knew the word and the second I said it that whole puzzled, polite, uneasy clues of school kids erupted into this amazing song. And that was nice, I have to admit. The desks were bouncing. They sang - lots of songs.
'Sorry,' I said to the schoolmaster when he returned. He said, 'Why?'
When I left the schoolhouse one of the villagers, perhaps 30 years old, quick like a ferret, beckoned me to follow him. He wore a ragged shirt and baggy old shorts. Re walked barefoot. The little toe of each foot was missing, though it didn't seem to trouble him. He wanted to show me round the village and I was glad to follow him.
We walked for miles through the fields where homes of stone were scattered: none had a door.
Inside one was an empty Heinz Baked Beans tin. It must have been taken from our rubbish tip. It would find a purpose.
The rooms were dark and cool: uncluttered. Beds were made of smooth slabs of stone. My new friend laughed and showed me the knives he had made himself, a bow and arrow, a Bible. The village must have been converted to Christianity, though I learned there are still pagan ceremonies. No one would say more.
Over the entrance to one home the words in Hausa, which mean:
'God never sleeps.'
On the wall, a notice in English, status symbol of sorts: 'Care for your hair with Claricer. Claricer scalp investigator stimulates growth and keeps dandruff away from your hair. Use Claricer regularly and give your hair that glossy look that all of your friends envy and admire. Care for your hair with Claricer.'
We passed a circle of stones: a meeting place. The stones were shaped like toadstools.
Whenever there was a rock on the route through the fields my new friend put it carefully to one side, however small it was. There was a neatness about him, a sense of order: pride. Everything he showed me was done with pride.
As we walked he introduced me to many people: women beating washed clothes on stone, men returning from work in the fields, elders sitting on wooden stools among hens and goats. The greeting would last a minute or so with everyone I met. 'Sanu!' Sanu kade!" “Kade sanu!" 'Sanu kade…" The same words went back and forth, half speech, half song: ritual exchange. It just meant 'Hello!' But such a greeting means that you can never be curt to anyone. You must take your time to say hello.
When the greetings were over we drifted into silence. Silences can be awkward. And yet, when people are unable to speak the same language, they do not matter.
I was offered millet wine as the villagers laughed in anticipation.
They know its effect. The wooden bowl was passed from mouth to mouth, like a joint.
We met the schoolmaster returning home before dusk.
'The houses don't seem to have any doors,’ I said to him in English.
'Why are you surprised?'
'Well, maybe people can steal things.'
'Some have doors,' he said.
'But they're open.'
But it's hot. And what would people steal?'
'Things, I guess.'
'But crime is unknown to us.'
'Doesn't anyone even pinch anything?’
'Yes,' replied the schoolmaster.
'But only for fun.'
When it was time to return, to camp I wanted to thank my friend for troubling to show me his village. I felt awkward now, the tourist. I was embarrassed to offer money, particularly as it was getting short.
Still, it would only be fair to give him something and I offered two pounds. He refused, gesturing that he couldn't accept it without offering a gift in exchange. He gave me a small leather bag and four fresh eggs. He returned some of the money. The bag was old.
Then be guided me across the fields back to camp. But when we arrived he wanted me to show him round the camp: our village.
He looked at the canvas beds, the nylon sleeping bags, the plastic plates; the steel knives, the aluminum chairs, the electric lights, the hissing kettles, the crates of warm beer, the stock piles of tinned food, the bustle and noise, everything he looked at with the same envy as I had looked at his world.
As always, we exercised early the next morning on the special movement that passes from one to another around a circle. An actor makes the simplest movement possible. Without looking directly at him, all follow. The next develops the movement, as all follow him. Until the movement is complete.
And for the first time in the long journey, it worked. It worked! Nothing was forced or complex. No one strained after outward effect. Somehow each movement flowed so naturally and spontaneously into the next it was as if one wasn't even aware of making it. It was as if our minds and bodies had vanished. And it seemed like a miracle.
'How did such a thing happen?' I asked Brook.
'What makes a spirit?' he replied, and laughed.
That day the group looked as if it had shed a hundred years. Following the failure and disillusion of so much of our recent work, two different shows were performed in the village and long stretches of them both worked marvellously. They glimpsed Brook's ideal theatre: spontaneous events. There, captured, were those long sought-for qualities of openness, simplicity, danger, special moments of intensity that seemed so spontaneous it was as if spirits were at work, playing. Sometimes it might last for only a few moments, this feeling that something unique had been caught at last, and then it was gone. For ever?
The shows were little more than public workshops, stick work, song, the best musical work ever done by the group, and many half-human birds: birds travelling, birds searching, birds lost, birds drowning, birds fighting for survival. The work was building up to another try at the big piece, 'The Conference of the Birds'.
'You know,' said one of the actors afterwards, 'it's getting really irritating not being able lo fly.'
Lou Zeldis and friends: 'I wish I could fly.’
The following morning, Brook and his wife drove all day with their children to the airport in Lagos. It was time for young Simon and Irina to return to Paris, incredible to believe they would be home in only a few hours. In his absence, Brook asked the English actor Bruce Myers to take personal responsibility for work on another show, which would be performed that night. Pleased and flattered, Myers accepted the job as the group's new boss. Re found out later that Brook had given the same job to everyone else.
For myself, I had a meeting with the vision: The Beautiful Chief.
'Can you get us a date?' asked the girls. In the search for truth: escort agencies...
The Chief was waiting for me, sitting on the smooth rocks of the goat path that led into his village. Everything about him had such simplicity and goodness it was impossible not to feel a little awed in his presence. Yet he laughed easily, a man without a trace of self-importance, relaxed and friendly, curious to meet me. His name was Godunyilwada. Once a year his people cut the grass that is used to thatch the roofs of their homes. Before weaving the grass, the leaders pray to their gods. He was born on that day and so his name means 'A man born on the day the grass was cut'.
'It is nice to talk to you' he said when we met. 'But you see, I am a little thirsty.'
I dashed back to camp and returned with several bottles of beer, which were greeted with sounds such as, 'Oh, you shouldn't have troubled' and, 'Beer - what a surprise!' Everyone was laughing. The Chief drank his from a small glass, nodding appreciation.
The schoolmaster translated.
'Would it be impolite to ask your age?' I asked the Chief.
'Why is it impolite to ask a question?' he replied. 'Why is it rude to ask someone's age?'
I replied that it was sometimes so in the West, particularly with actresses.
He smiled and went into discussion with his councillors, working out his age. He couldn't be certain. Perhaps he was 45.
'Older than you,' he said.
'But I feel 103.'
'Why? You are young.'
'But you are content. I walk round your village and everyone seems so.'
'To you we do,' replied the Chief, 'but we're not content’. It isn't so. You see, quite a number of things worry us.'
And he named three: the crumbling school, the state of the crops and the low supplies of water.
'The people worry. A man who lives in the world has many problems.'
'Forgive me. My observation was stupid. It is just that life seems simple here.'
‘To you, perhaps.'
"Then if you could leave here for a life in the city, would you?'
'I am sure he wouldn't,' said the schoolmaster.
'It is too late for me,' said the Chief. 'My parents forbade me to attend the missionary school. They were suspicious. And so I have no education and could not survive in the city. I have many children, too. And those of my dead brothers.'
'Have you ever been in a car?' I asked.
'Once, once I went in a car.'
'What was it like?'
'Comfortable, the Chief replied, and laughed again.
'Would you like one?'
'If I get it, I should be happy.'
'Do you think you ever will?'
'By what means?'
'Your children will become rich and give you one.'
'If there's life,' replied the Chief, 'there's hope.'
'Do you have many children?'
The counting went on for some time as he consulted with the others.
'I have 19 of my own. And you?'
'And how many wives?'
I was beginning to feel depressed.
‘One, at the last count,' I added. 'But in the West it's fairly normal'.
'I don't believe it,' said the Chief, looking shocked.
'How many wives do you have?'
'Seven, at present.'
‘If there's life, there's hope.'
'Right!' replied the Chief.
'But don't your wives get jealous of each other?'
'No woman can live without jealousy.'
'But it isn't a problem for the man. It's their problem. The women should not trouble the men with such matters as jealousy.'
'And nor,' 1 added, 'should the men trouble the women.'
The Chief paused to consider the matter.
'Perhaps,' he replied looking cautious.
'But how can you give the same attention to each of your wives?
'I don't. It is not possible. I love them all. But I tell only one my secrets.'
‘That is one of the secrets,' replied The Cautious Chief.
But now he had a question for me.
'Are all the women who come here with you married?'
'No,' I told him. 'And those who aren't have asked if you would be kind enough to meet them.'
'Why should they wish to meet me?'
'Well, I think they can't resist temptation.'
At which everyone exploded into gales of laughter.
'But are they mature?' asked the Chief.
'How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?'
'What does that mean?' asked the translator.
'I'm not sure. I'm just giving the message.'
'But which one of them would agree to stay behind in the village?' asked the Chief.
'I can't say, I'm afraid. It's quite a step.'
'To ask for the love of a woman is difficult.'
'Not always,' I replied, waving the flag.
'But in our case,' explained the Chief, 'even if the woman loved a man with all her heart she would never admit it'
'Then how would the man ever know?’
'Someone else would tell him.'
'Well I'm doing my best,' I said.
And again the Chief and his councillors roared with affectionate laughter.
'Please, what did you think when you first saw us arrive?'
'Every year, European people come here in vehicles and stay in the same place that you sleep. They disappear over the far side of the valley. But they never speak to us. They arrive and disappear. We thought you were them. I was disturbed. But when I learned that you came in peace, we welcomed you. My father was the first to accept the white man in this area. He foresaw that they would come one day. And while he was alive, they came.'
'How did he know they would come?'
"He heard sounds.'
'Do you hear such sounds?'
'Yes, I do.'
But he would say no more.
'And when you see our plays, what do you think?'
'Some of our sons have been overseas and they tell us of the white people who sing and dance. And now we know it is a fact.'
'Why do you seem surprised?
'Because we did not think it was possible for white people to use their bodies as Africans do. We did not think they could speak with their bodies.
'It is the whole point of the work.'
'Well, we welcome you. If my father accepted the white man, why should I turn him away? I do not mistreat you. But in the past the white man has not always been accepted. It is true that time kills all things. If not, you would never have met us.'
'Because… we would have run away,' replied the beautiful Chief.
Improvisation by visiting actor freaks.
That night the actors waited for Brook to return from Lagos. Then they crossed the valley into the village and performed The Ogre Show. Here's just & short extract from the first part-
A box enters, breathes and makes sounds.
Birds approach the breathing box.
A spirit warns of evil.
One bird, an idiot, ignores the spirit and opens the box.
Ogre laps out and kills. The ogre becomes a bird, eating the bird.
And returns to the box.
The ogre gives birth to a baby ogre.
In time, the baby ogre gives birth to a baby ogre.
And that was the first happy scene from the show. Based on several of Ted Hughes's strange and perverse poems, it had always seemed needlessly complex whenever the group worked on it before. Somehow, what were thought to be direct and simple images in Europe never seemed so in Africa. But for the first time a new clarity and power was caught here, too. Maybe all one is left with after any play is an image. The story and plot, the author's finely honed lines, often they're forgotten soon afterwards. But a particular image might live with you for life. Perhaps Beckett is like this. But under that massive tree in the village of Dungung startling images were discovered as if a new form of theatre could be glimpsed struggling to emerge from that vile world of ogre. Something was happening, all right. That other ogre-monster, called Mr Brook was looking unusually pleased. The audience, at first stunned, gave the group a fine reception.
But at the conference after the show, Brook talked to the actors of their true role. 'Reach out more into the imagination. Try harder to reach into your own world of experiences and fears. We're beginning to touch on it, beginning to find it. Avoid the mini-world of indulgence and interpretation. The true role of the actor must be creative. Open it up, as writers do. It's there.'
Then he reminded them that when the group was first formed at the height of the '88 revolution in Paris, the most popular student slogan was 'L'Imagination au Pouvoir.’
If so, Long Live Imagination!
The following day, the day of ‘The Conference of the Birds', a messenger came from the village asking Brook to go to the Chief.
When he arrived at the village, the Chief and his councillors were sitting on wooden stools around the tree where we had performed. One man held a ram on a lead.
'I am sorry,' said the Chief. 'I cannot feed you all. But we would like to give you something. We would like to give you this ram.'
Nothing so wonderful could happen to us, a gift as generous as this from people who had no need to give us a thing. When the outsider sees in the African qualities that seem lost to his world, perhaps it is moments such as this which convince him of the truth. Touched and moved, Brook accepted the gift, calling on all the others to come and accept it with him.
We returned to the camp, taking the ram with us.
But that innocent ram was to lead to more problems than could have been imagined. For once accepted, the question arose as to what to do with it. DO we kill the ram? What do we do with the ram?
'All right, everyone! Gather round now. We're having a conference.' The conference of the ram .
The ram was tied to a tree, chewing grass: indifferent to its fate. The ram must be killed! But others fought for it. To Brook's surprise and exasperation, quite a few argued emotionally against killing it. One thing to eat a ram, another to kill it. 'Ridiculous,' snapped Brook. But we know the ram, others argued back, only making things worse. I mean, we didn't kill the chickens given by the last village we visited. Why pick on a ram? Why not give it away? We could put it in the back of the truck. We could take it home. 'Or we could give it back,' snapped Brook again
'Kill it,' argued the French actor Sylvain Corthay, keener than anyone. Corthay had volunteered for the job of slaughterer. 'It's only right,' added Miriam Goldschmidt, the German, 'we must learn to live off the land.' 'Live off the land,' groaned Mr Boyston Bennett, the camp master. 'My God but there's hell to pay when there's not enough Rice Krispies in the morning.'
Well I was enjoying this conference, particularly as Brook looked in danger of losing the vote. 'I vote against killing the ram,' I said when it was my turn to speak. 'I vote against on the grounds that I'm en route to becoming a vegetarian.' Brook rose above that. But then Mr Lou Zeldis, the American actor who is a vegetarian, spoke. I vote against. 'I think we should give the ram a crown of thorns and let it roam free the forest." At which Brook looked as if he would hit the roof. ‘Alternatively,’ added Zeldis, we could paint it blue.' At which Brook looked as if he would hit the sky. And so he put a stop to such nonsense, guillotined the debate and ordered the ram to be killed. 'It's right,' said Corthay, asking for a sharp knife. 'I feel this is a special moment. I feel it will help the work…’
Help the work? For myself, I didn't mind them killing the ram really. But for the life of me, and the life of the ram I couldn't see how the work would benefit. You might as well kill a few relatives in order to play Hamlet a little better. 'Sorry, dad. But you always said you wanted my name in lights.' One time before the journey, I talked with Brook about the difference between theatre and ritual. He was discussing the vital distinction between ceremony in theatre and ceremony in religion. In the rituals of religious ceremony you kill animals, you kill people: blood sacrifice. But for Brook, theatre must always draw a distinction. For theatre always imitates. And he gave me a startling illustration.
At the end of his controversial play about Vietnam, US, a butterfly was burnt in full view of the audience. But it wasn't a real butterfly. Brook held passionately that the job of the actors was to burn a fake butterfly in such a way that everyone in the audience would be convinced they were burning a real one. In fact he took the argument to absurdity, though he was forced to by an amazing row which could only happen in England. When they saw the production, dog and butterfly lovers everywhere were outraged and fled in The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
So Brook secretly told them the actors were really burning a piece of crumpled paper, but if they ever dared to reveal it, he would substitute a real butterfly. Therefore to his delight, if they respected the life of a butterfly they had to accept the shame of not protesting.
Thus theatre imitates, and animates life. Still, I couldn't help thinking it was only a butterfly. Wasn't Brook taking life a little seriously? "No,’ he replied.’We're not qualified in the name of something as vague and spurious even as art to take anyone's life. We can shout and protest and do many things, but we can't take anyone's life - starting with the life of a butterfly.'
And a ram? Too late, too late for Brook to change the course of events now. The emotional debate had swept the issue into a setting where no actor belongs. Actors always over-dramatise. The killing of the ram had become a form of theatre. The slaughter had turned into a sacrifice.
No one outside the acting group troubled to attend. And three actors chose not to either: Brook's leading actor Yoshi Oida, Francois Marthouret and Helen Mirren. ‘If you feel hungry and want to eat, Mirren said to me, then kill and eat in honesty. Do not kill to bring anyone closer to their work.'
There weren't any scenes or anything. They ate the ram with the others afterwards.
Corthay led the ram into a clearing among the rocks of the valley. There, the American-Greek Ketsulas and the African Bagayogo tied its legs together and hung it struggling from the thick branch of a tree. Brook and the rest gathered quietly - mixture of morbid curiosity, excitement and nerves. Corthay had slaughtered animals before. In his youth he killed the sheep of his family's farm in the South of France. When he was three years old he used to watch fascinated as his brother killed the sheep before delivering meat and wool to local merchants. To keep him quiet, his brother always threw him the bones. He broke off the legs, peeled them and threw him the fresh bones to eat.
'My uncle's a butcher,' announced Katsulas, tying the rope round the ram. The others began to laugh nervously. Swados, the group's composer, appeared with the bread knife over her head like a scene from 'Psycho'. 'He's a butcher in St Louis, Missouri.'
Then Corthay took the knife.
Made the shape of a cross on the head of the ram.
Kissed the cross.
And slit its throat.
Blood gushed over him, and the other two holding the ram down.
The others turned green.
The ram twitched violently, wounded only, fighting for life. The thrust of the blade could not have been clean. The ram was still strong. The ram was refining to die! Horrified, some began to laugh nervously again, Brook quietened them sternly. Respect for the ram! But it would not die! What eternity passed before us then! Was the ram unaware that it was being sacrificed? That was the term used. Not 'killed' or 'slaughtered', but sacrificed. And to which deity? asked the ram. And receiving no reply, would not assist. Again Corthay plunged the knife into its throat and again the ram fought back, struggling and twitching, gasping for air as blood spattered. But it would not die! Used animal, degraded, innocent victim of this fake ceremony, resisting inevitable death, defiant, cursing, mocking ram, it fought for a more worthy end than this. Die! But it gasped only for more air, choking, fighting still until in one magnificent effort it gathered up all life that was left, sucked in the air with its whole being and farted it out in the faces of its stunned audience. Again Corthay went for it. But the ram only farted its final farewell. Oh sweet, slaughtered, lovely, farting ram. You saw it all.
Then it was skinned, disembowelled, chopped up, boiled and eaten.
When we left the valley the following day to continue the journey, it was by coincidence the holy day of the year when all Muslims are called on to sacrifice a ram. It's called the great day of Eidul-Adha, the day of symbolic sacrifice when a father offers a son to his Maker. Along the road in the fields and the backs of homes many Muslims gathered together to make their sacrifice. Sometimes hundreds of people could be seen, meeting and praying. But amongst them, without drama or piety, the ram was s1aughtered swiftly on the earth and then given away. The rich give to the poor. Everyone sacrifices a portion of his wealth, sharing the celebration feast with those who are without means. Trying as best they could to share the customs of Africa, several actors killed a ram. But amongst them, no one shared his meal with a single villager.
Before the evening meal we crossed the valley for the final performance, 'The Conference of the Birds'. As before the whole village was there, perhaps 400 people: same number as the first day. They looked curious and excited, eager to see what the visiting freaks might come up with this time.
Many ideas had been discussed, trying to sustain the idea of a voyage. But the actors decided against too much preparation, preferring to live dangerously during the performance. Such a risk means that anything can go wrong for no one knows in advance what might happen. In the book of 'The Conference of the Birds', the birds who make the journey do not know what might happen to them either. Their leader has told them of the seven valleys they must cross to find God. But the way through the valleys they must discover for themselves. Only the reason for the journey is known.
The actors gathered round the great tree of Dungung, and began.
And exploded. Never since the journey began had them been such frenzied outpouring of energy and movement, wild surrealist expression of dreams and hopes, high as if on drugs, calling, screaming to each other, amazing as dervishes, near anarchy from insane spirits, forcing new images into life, in a travel dance, these birds on the move, to drums, sound, gesture, violent and crazed journey through sun and fire, desperate voyage through voids and valleys.
'What's happening?' I asked Brook.
But he was laughing too much to answer.
Extracted from ‘Conference of the Birds’ (Faber and Faber, £5.95).