WWhat are memories? Stories that we tell each other? Do they occupy neatly stored compartments in the brain? Perhaps – as Cicero and others have argued – memory is a kind of palace or theater: an atmospheric space filled with meaningful objects, or a realistic stage on which figures materialize and disappear in the dark. never.
Inside an 18th-century swaggering palace in Palermo, Irina Brook tries to find answers to these questions – at least some of them. The project is called The House of Us. Three years in planning and writing, the first piece she created from scratch is a mix of autobiographical installations, photographs, video, music and theatrical performance. The audience will walk through it all, intruding on Brook’s memory.
“It’s like a journey through life and death, then back to life,” she said on Zoom before rehearsals one morning. “It’s pretty mega,” she adds eagerly.
Brook’s life offers rich material. The eldest of director Peter Brook and actor Natasha Parry, born in Paris but educated in England, she grew up on stage. As a child, she hung out on the famous white box of her father’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970. “We had trouble with my father because he let his feet hang overboard”, she laughs. At age 20, she appeared in her A Cherry Orchard, playing a fiery Anya for Ranevskaya, her mother’s grief.
She became a full-fledged director, directed the prestigious Théâtre National de Nice and made a reputation for playful covers of opera and theater classics. Her last big UK show was a pleasantly iconoclastic version of Peer Gynt from Ibsen who visited the Barbican in 2004, with an Iggy Pop soundtrack – with whom she dated. His partner Dan Jemmett is also a director; keeping in the family business, they led their daughter Maïa in Romeo and Juliet (Maïa also appeared in a stream grandfather production, La Tempête).
Maybe it was only a matter of time before she tried to put some of these things on stage. “House of Us is literally my life,” she says. “Born in the theater, made the theater, directed, been a theater director. It’s 50 years old. Theater, theater, theater.
Anyone hoping for a take on life in a kitchen sink behind the scenes of an artistic dynasty is likely to be disappointed. At least as Brook describes it, The House of Us is more elusive than that. Part of the Fondazione Sant’Elia, now Palermo’s Museum of Modern Art, will host 24 drama students rehearsing Chekhov’s speeches in a space that resembles a dressing room. In another segment of space, actor Geoffrey Carey will offer ruminations about love and loss. Another room pays homage to The Seagull; yet another features a recording of Natasha Parry reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets. In its immersive meta-theatricality, it is possible to detect the spirit of Ariane Mnouchkine, with whom Brook worked in Paris.
While everyone is obsessed with Brook’s father, it’s actually his mother that the play is primarily interested in. Hailed as one of the greatest theatrical talents of her generation, Parry was nonetheless defined by the man she married at age 20. Although she worked with other directors – she was an imperious Lady Capulet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo and Juliet – Parry threw herself into her husband’s plans, joining his experimental company at Les Bouffes du Nord. and traveling with him on journeys of discovery around the world.
Brook won’t quite say the Parry star was eclipsed, but her mother certainly struggled with the realities of being married to arguably the world’s most famous stage director while trying to sustain a life. family. “She’s the invisible one,” Brook said softly. “That’s what spoke to me. The feeling of being close to the life of a great man, and the feeling of making oneself invisible. And I realized, in fact, that I had a big part of her inside of me that I had to stand on.
Parry died in 2015. A few years later, Brook began to think her grief could be put to good use. In the text that introduces The House of Us, she writes that her mother “spent most of her life, when she was not playing, in a golden cage of solitude that she had made for herself”, s ‘surrounding piles of newspapers, unable to leave. his Parisian apartment before nightfall. “I loved her,” says Brook. “She was one of those princess mothers, you know, the most beautiful person you know. But there was a lot of absence.
If The House of Us looks open-ended, even a little weird, Brook readily admits that this is often how it turned out for her. As a child she dreamed of becoming a movie star and was more than a little upset to realize that she might need to go to, say, drama school. She studied at the Stella Adler Studio in New York City, but was overcome with fear and hated it. “Stella was such a dragon! She yelled at everyone, especially the girls.
It was when she met Iggy, I ask falsely. “Oh, we dated in New York, but we met in London. I ran away from the boarding school and went to see him, then made my way backstage and sat on the floor of his lodge watching him as he took a shower. Her voice softens. “He was very wild, but I was a very reserved English schoolgirl.”
The job came as a performer, first off Broadway and then in London. But she often felt like she was having a hard time keeping her head above water. She went down to the last two for the role of Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant Ivory A Room With a View, losing to Helena Bonham Carter. Another weak spot, after long stretches of no work, was touring in an English regional version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1995, which required a substantial amount of stage nudity – something she hadn’t fully digested before. to go on stage one evening in Coque.
“I suffered for 12 agonizing years as an actor,” she says. She moved on to directing soon after.
I read that a few years before he appeared in his father’s Cherry Orchard, he actually turned her down the part. True story, she replies. “I auditioned with one of his wonderful actors and he had to say, ‘Well let’s do some more work.’ ” What happened ? “He must have said to me, ‘I feel like you’re not ready yet.’ I grabbed my suitcase and left. I was furious.
When I suggest that a psychoanalyst would give it to their heart’s content, she politely slips away. “I always tell my kids that I am child’s play everywhere else, but in work you just can’t be swayed by anything.”
Is one of her children – she also has a son – inclined to follow in her footsteps and make a living in the theater? She laughs. “I’m one of those terrible stage moms who say, ‘Get yourself an agent! “”
And how is his father, who turned 96 earlier this year? “He is very frail. But it is absolutely full of ideas, thoughts and memories. And he’s still working, which is inspiring.
Brook, who turns 60 next year, is given bursts of laughter and galloping digressions encompassing everything from her reflections on ecology (a late interest) to the stubborn French theatrical conservatism she encountered in Nice. Maybe the idea of art imitating life comes to me, but I find it hard not to think of Irina in The Three Sisters of Chekhov, of which she is of course partly named after her: another dreamer, a little wild, perpetually full of hope. “I have a Pollyanna side, I think everything is for the best in the best possible world,” she agrees.
The House of Us will travel to Florence and Venice, and then hopefully Japan. Brook is eager to persuade a British or American producer – she fantasizes he’s at the Armory in New York – but it remains to be seen if anyone will bite. She laughs. “I have enough material to fill Buckingham Palace at this point.” You suspect it will become the work of a lifetime, in every sense of the word.
A few days after our first conversation, I send a message to verify some things. A long paragraph comes back, saying that, really, the project is about stepping out of the shadows, overcoming one’s own creative insecurities. “Someone told me a few years ago, when you become a sun, the shadows disappear,” one reads.