Stepping Out of Her Family’s Shadow, and Laying Bare Family History
RYE, England — A couple of years ago, the theater director Irina Brook became obsessed with shadows. She kept photographing her own, and filmed others moving around her.
It was a transparent metaphor for the feelings she was working through, because Brook’s parents have cast a long shadow over her life and career. Her latest work, “House of Us,” which opens in Venice on Nov. 29, is dedicated to her mother, the English actress Natasha Parry, whose rich stage and screen career lasted more than six decades. As for her father? You may have heard of Peter Brook, one of the most influential theater directors of the past century, who died this year, in Paris, at age 97.
Brook, 60, is only just coming to terms with her family history, by laying much of it bare in “House of Us.” In this immersive work, which will be staged over two floors at Casa dei Tre Oci, a Venetian palazzo turned art space, visitors wander through a series of rooms inspired by Brook’s life, and her mother’s.
Some are dreamlike reinventions of Parry’s bedroom and dressing room; another is a close reproduction of Brook’s kitchen, furnished with her possessions. (She shipped her kitchen table to Venice for the production.) Actors appear in multiple rooms, and private mementos, including family albums and Brook’s diaries, are on display throughout, as well as Brook’s images of shadows, transferred on oversize Japanese-style scrolls.
“I somehow realized how invisible and shadowed I felt for all my life,” Brook said recently in an interview. “I’m only just emerging from my cocoon, belatedly.”
Brook followed in her parents’ footsteps from a young age — “blindly,” she said — first by taking up acting, then moving to directing. Her first production, a 1996 staging of Richard Kalinoski’s “Beast on the Moon,” was an instant hit, and led to a steady, decades-long stream of gigs on prestigious European stages. Then, three years ago, she had an epiphany: Theater was “the wrong business” for her all along, she said.
A lot has changed in her life since then. Brook left the Théâtre National de Nice, a major playhouse in southern France that she had led since 2014. She rented a house near the south coast of England, with panoramic countryside views. And she plotted “House of Us” — a “permanent moving work in progress” that would be so “insanely personal,” she said recently, while sitting at her kitchen table before it was packed off to Venice, “that it becomes insanely universal.”
The Venice version will be the third iteration of “House of Us,” which was shown in Palermo, Sicily, in 2021, and briefly in Britain this past summer. Each has featured different performers: In Venice, 11 actors, including 10 local drama students, will perform the roles of Brook’s family members as well as characters from several plays by Chekhov, whose “Cherry Orchard” Brook and Parry once performed together.
“House of Us” is a rebuttal of the type of shows Brook made for decades: “narrative, normal theater,” as she called it, including stagings of classic plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare (who was, incidentally, the playwright most identified symbolically with her father). “After I became a director,” Brook recalled, “I thought: ‘I’m not going to try and do anything new or different, because my dad’s already invented all that. What’s even the point?’”
Brook, who grew up between France and Britain, performed in some of Peter Brook’s productions, but she didn’t see much of her father as a child. “As a man and as a director of his time, he was single-mindedly working, and children were not part of that equation,” she said. “We were totally invited to come and sit on a Wednesday afternoon now and then, but we’d get into trouble if we got fidgety, or fell asleep.”
Her mother was often gone, too. “I adored her, but I just never saw enough of her, for all my life,” Brook said. “All she wanted to do was to act.” Still, Parry struggled at times to get work, because she also lived under her famous husband’s shadow. “I even wrote a letter to her agent as a little girl, saying: ‘Why don’t you get my mummy more work? She’s the best and the most beautiful,’” Brook said.
After leaving boarding school in England, and after a stint in New York City in the early 1980s, an undeterred Brook experienced a taste of her mother’s suffering as an out-of-work performer. She knew she was “not really very good,” and “not really meant to be an actress at all,” she said, but she stuck with theater.
“I just had no concept that anything else could possibly exist,” Brook said. “I wish that someone, when I was 19 or 20, had said to me, ‘Go to art school, go to film school.’”
Instead, starting in the mid-1990s, directing became an outlet for Brook’s childhood longing for family. “I just always wanted a big table with lots of people sitting at the kitchen table enjoying themselves,” she said. “My directorship was very maternal.”
Brook has also directed her own daughter, the actress and musician Maia Jemmett, 20, in several productions, including “Romeo and Juliet” and the British version of “House of Us.” Her mother’s “main focus is on making the actors shine,” Jemmett said. In addition to performing leading roles in Brook’s productions as a teenager, Jemmett also appeared in Peter Brook’s “Shakespeare Resonance” in 2020. She described her mother’s directing style and her grandfather’s as “unbelievably different.” While “there wasn’t much laughter” in Peter Brook’s rehearsals, she said, “with my mom’s rehearsals, it’s like being a child again, playing and having fun.”
Yet Brook said those rehearsals didn’t bring her quite as much joy. In the years after her mother’s sudden death from a stroke in 2015, she began feeling increasingly unhappy in the director’s role, she said. “It’s like when you hold a party,” she added. “What host ever has fun?”
During a difficult run of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” in 2018, she reached a breaking point. “I went to see the show one night, and I just thought: ‘My god, they’re not my real family. Maybe they are just lovely actors,’” she said. “I think at one point I could not stand the fact that theater is so ephemeral.”
By then, she also knew she was unsuited to directing a “big, heavy” French playhouse like the Théâtre National de Nice, Brook said. “I went in like a revolutionary, innocent fool,” she said. She enlisted teenagers from local schools to revisit Shakespeare plays and in 2015, staged a festival focused on climate change. But there was little willingness to put in effect the structural changes she wanted, she said.
Brook left Nice in 2019, without finishing her second term as the theater’s artistic director, and threw herself into collecting material for “House of Us.” The show’s first two outings, and the Venice run, are only the first part of the work; Brook calls this section “The Mother.” She plans two additional installments: “The Son,” which will focus on the loneliness of young people today, and “The Daughter,” inspired by Brook’s childhood in the French countryside.
What about “The Father”?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Brook said, with a wry smile. Peter Brook was supportive of “House of Us” until his death in July, she said, but when asked if she felt a responsibility for his theatrical legacy now, Brook answered: “He was a light person, and he wouldn’t want that weight to go on now. His favorite saying was: ‘Hold on tightly; let go lightly.’”
It took confronting some shadows for Brook to let go, but with “House of Us,” she is reclaiming her sense of self. “I feel like sort of a young artist,” she said. “Starting my life at last.”
House of Us: Part 1 — The Mother
Nov. 29 through Dec. 11 at Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice, produced by Teatro Stabile del Veneto; teatrostabileveneto.it.