When I was 11 my mother took me to see Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It changed my life because it showed me the possibility of worlds beyond my own. Years later I read his short book on the nature of theatre – ‘The Empty Space’.
Reflecting on what makes a civilised society, I thought about that phrase – the empty space. There are many ingredients which enable civil society to flourish, but right here, right now, one that we may be in danger of losing is the idea of empty space, be it spatial, virtual, or temporal.
Perhaps it seems strange to call for the presence of absence, but our world is full of busyness. There is no shortage of noise, activity, and conversation which has a habit of becoming angry fast. Isn’t it ironic that we are settling into the digital era with peak broadcasting techniques – wasn’t it meant to be about dialogue, and between the many not the few?
Civil society is a golden thread that binds us, but to be civil requires space for silence and reflection. In the words of Amplify, working in Northern Ireland, ‘We trod carefully and listened well’. In seeking the common thread and the common good, we all adapt and change in response to what we sense around us – creating a new equilibrium as we do so.
To return to Peter Brook, ‘Reality is a word with many meanings’. We need empty space to explore them in order to build a civilised society.