If we learn nothing else from the last standing of the great geniuses of the 20th century stage, let it be the following two items. First, to start always with an empty stage, to build nothing but what’s needed to bolster the work at hand. Second, that “tradition, in the sense we use the word, means ‘frozen’” and that “all form is deadly”.
To see an effortless, elegant institution of these two great insights, one can encounter Brook’s Love is My Sin, the subtle and surprising etude of the master at peace. In under an hour of legato grace, the piece lilts through some twenty or so of Shakespeare’s sonnets performed as a vibrant and active memory play by two frank theatrical domestics Natasha Parry and Michael Pennington.
If you want to make an enormous mistake, you should purchase the little booklet that includes the text of the sonnets and follow along on the page. To do this (as too many at Friday night’s performance) misses most directly the handsome magic of their performance. At once presentational and deeply felt, you can see onstage a century of theatrical training on hand at every word, glance, gesture or breath.
The trouble with performing sonnets is that there are essentially two imperfect options. Either you can chop at them, parse them, and divide them between actors, or you can give them as whole thoughts. The trouble with the first form is that they are more dynamic for being the struggles of a single author; externalizing their arguments makes their conclusions feel forced: either a victory or a loss than an insight or a resolution. The trouble with leaving them all as soliloquies is that their form is so strict and predictable, that barring trance-like repetition, the formulaic back-and-forth of the performers becomes more like the world’s calmest tennis match than a piece of theater.
But Brook is too smart, and the performers are too great for either of these to be significant hurdles. The form of the piece is primarily of the volley option, but the memory structure allows for the performative, rhetorical sense of the sonnets to evoke examples of feelings felt and opinions held, argued for convincingly, re-created honestly, but not necessarily of the present. And then: an ultimate transcendence of accord concludes the work, and liberates, subverts, and ennobles the preceding form. I’m covered with waves goose-bumps just recalling it; I am literally fighting a flood of tears in an Au Bon Pain in La Guardia. Sure, I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and Good God, that ever the only reason for tears was perfect theater, but Love is My Sin is unequivocally perfect theater, short of breath, long on depth, huge of heart; worthy of tears. I will hold it close.