Mystical Giant Who Changed Theater Forever


Peter Brook, who died at the age of 97, was one of the most influential theater directors of the 20th century and reinvented the art by reducing it to the most basic and powerful elements of the drama.

An almost mystical figure often mentioned in the same breath as Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian who revolutionized acting, Brook continued to work and challenge audiences well into the 1990s.

Best known for his 1985 masterpiece “The Mahabharata”, a nine-hour version of the Hindu epic, he lived in Paris from the early 1970s, where he founded the International Center for Theater Research in an ancient music hall called the Bouffes du North.

Brook was a child prodigy who made his professional directorial debut at just 17 years old and was a special talent from the get-go.

He captivated audiences in London and New York with his time-defining “Marat/Sade” in 1964, which won a Tony Award, and wrote “The Empty Space”, one of the most influential texts on theater ever, three years later.

The opening lines became a manifesto for a generation of young performers who would forge the fringe and alternative theater scenes.

British theater director Peter Brook produced over 100 plays during his long career British theater director Peter Brook produced over 100 plays during his long career Photo: AFP / Lionel BONAVENTURE

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” he wrote.

“A man walks through an empty space while someone else is looking at him, and this is all it takes for a theater act…”

For many, Brooks’s sensational 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a white cube gymnasium was a turning point in world theater.

It inspired actress Helen Mirren to leave her burgeoning mainstream career and join his burgeoning experimental company in Paris.

Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925, to a family of Jewish scientists who had emigrated from Latvia. By his mid-twenties, Brook was an acclaimed director in London’s West End.

Brook was already an acclaimed director in London's West End in his mid-20s Brook was already an acclaimed director in London’s West End in his mid-20s Photo: AFP / Pierre GUILLAUD

Before his 30th birthday, he directed hits on Broadway.

But driven by a passion for experimentation that he picked up from his parents, Brook soon “exhausted the possibilities of conventional theater”.

His first film, “Lord of the Flies” (1963), an adaptation of William Golding’s novel about schoolboys stranded on an island turning to cruelty, was an instant classic.

By the time he brought a production of “King Lear” to Paris a few years later, he developed an interest in working with actors from different cultures.

He moved permanently to the French capital in 1971 and the following year set out with a group of actors, including Mirren and the Japanese legend Yoshi Oida, on an odyssey of 13,600 kilometers across Africa to test his ideas.

Drama critic John Heilpern, who documented their journey in a bestseller, said Brook believed theater was about freeing the audience’s imagination.

Works by Shakespeare that Brook has directed include: "the storm" in 1991 and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1970 Works by Shakespeare that Brook has directed include “The Tempest” in 1991 and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1970 Photo: AFP / GEORGES GOBET

“Every day they would lay down a carpet in a remote village and improvise a show with shoes or a box,” he later told the BBC.

“When someone stepped on the carpet, the show started. There was no script or shared language.”

But the grueling journey took its toll on his company, most of whom suffered from dysentery or tropical diseases.

Mirren later described it as “the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. There was nothing to hold onto.”

Shortly after, she said goodbye to Brook.

He “thought stardom was bad and tacky… I just wanted my name out there,” she told AFP.

Brook continued to experiment at the Bouffes du Nord and toured the world with his productions.

His major milestone after “The Mahabharata” was “L’Homme Qui” in 1993, based on Oliver Sacks’ bestselling book on neurological dysfunction, “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”.

Brook triumphantly returned to Britain in 1997 starring ‘Happy Days’ by Samuel Beckett and his wife, actress, Natasha Parry.

Critics praised him as “the best director London doesn’t have”.

After turning 85 in 2010, Brook stepped away from the leadership of the Bouffes du Nord but continued to lead there.

Eight years later, at the age of 92, he wrote and staged “The Prisoner” with Marie-Helene Estienne, one of two women with whom he shared his life.

The true story was based on his own spiritual journey to Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion to shoot a movie in 1978 called “Meetings with Remarkable Men”.

It is adapted from a book by the mystical philosopher George Gurdjieff, whose sacred dances Brook performed daily for years.

With a calm voice, cerebral and charismatic, Brook himself was often seen as a sort of Sufi.

But Parry’s death in 2015 shocked him. “People try to negotiate with fate and say, just bring her back for 30 seconds,” he said.

Yet he never stopped working, despite his declining eyesight.

“I have a responsibility to be as positive and creative as possible,” he told The Guardian. “Giving in to despair is the ultimate escape,” he said.

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