Peter Brook bids farewell to Paris theatre


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© The Observer – Sunday 2 january 2011 – Vanessa Thorpe.
For lovers of Parisian theatre, the first days of 2011 have a slightly melancholy edge. On New Year’s Eve the hugely influential English director Peter Brook finally ended his 36-year tenure at the experimental Bouffes du Nord theatre in the French capital.

Friday night’s performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute was the 85-year-old’s last production as the artistic head of a venue that has become synonymous with inventiven avant-garde work. As Brook’s opera heads off on a European tour that reaches London’s Barbican in March, the director is handing over the reins at the Bouffes to two younger Frenchmen: the former deputy head of Paris’s Opéra-Comique, Olivier Mantei, and the theatre entrepreneur and modern music specialist Olivier Poubelle. Both have been part of Brook’s wider creative team for some time.

« He is doing the right thing moving on now, » said Tom Piper, the Royal Shakespeare Company designer who worked with Brook in the early 1990s. « He got a very international audience there and French audiences appreciated it. He is amazingly charismatic and so he gets amazing things out of people. »

When Brook announced two years ago that he would gradually step down from the Bouffes, he spoke of a conviction he shared with Poubelle and Mantei that « opera, popular music, theatre and dance can be married in a single spectacle in order to invent new forms ».

Brook has produced ground-breaking shows in French, including La Tragedie de Carmen; the epic Indian poem The Mahabharata; and, more recently, Tierno Bokar, a Sufi tale from Mali. But last year Brook, who was born in west London to Russian-Latvian émigrés, admitted he sometimes missed the English language.

Brook began what many have seen as a creative exile in Paris after enjoying British success in 1970 with RSC productions of Marat/Sade and the anti-Vietnam play US, and finally with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring Frances de la Tour and Ben Kingsley. His guiding principle, regarded as startling at the time, was that the stage should be left uncluttered so the imagination could work. His 1968 handbook, The Empty Space, set out the idea that the audience is central to the atmosphere of a piece. Elaborate sets, according to this theory, just divide the actors from the public.

Brook’s revolutionary methods were always fluid, however, as Piper recalls. « Decisions were never final. When we were rehearsing La Tempête in Paris, we brought a whole load of earth into the theatre for a week before we decided it wasn’t right. In the end we went with a patch of sand and a single rock. We had an orange box which became a boat and was then worn on Ariel’s head. This became the image on the poster, but it had all come from rehearsal. »

Brook’s 1963 film of Lord of the Flies is regarded as a classic, but the poor reception in Britain of a 1978 stage production of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Alan Howard and Glenda Jackson, heralded a long period of work at the dilapidated former variety venue in Paris.

Brook’s productions came to Britain intermittently. His nine-hour Mahabharata was a hit at Glasgow’s Tramway in 1988 and in the 1990s an acclaimed stage version of Oliver Sachs’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat came to the National Theatre.

« The British establishment is difficult for him, » suggests Piper. « It is a shame we have never found the way to get him to come back permanently to Britain. He has become a special event when he comes back and perhaps that helps him to have a bigger impact. »

Brook’s pared style – with a stripped stage and minimal props – is so pervasive as to be mainstream now, but the director, says Piper, always worked at the Bouffes as if he were struggling in a start-up venture. « In my time he ran just a skeleton staff there. If you wanted to take anything anywhere, you had to hire a van. It was like working in a fringe theatre. »

Brook’s innovative thinking has been reflected, Piper believes, in the shape of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford. « We have a stage that thrusts out and the audience is wrapped around it. We wanted to put the actor right at the heart of it. It is about preserving the past too, but we wanted to be playful. You have to keep the character and the ghosts of a theatre, » said Piper.

Brook does not want his successors at the Bouffes to feel impelled to follow his rules. « The first thing I wanted to establish – having spent all my life fighting against tradition – was to avoid [appointing] a successor who would have to try and prove my line. »


Brook’s Triumphs

1981 La Tragédie de Carmen, after Prosper Mérimée, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

A radical reworking of the Bizet opera taking it closer to the dark themes of the original novel.

1981 La Cerisaie, by Anton Chekhov

A version of The Cherry Orchard in which the faded grandeur of Chekhov’s country estate setting has been stripped away from the first.

1985: The Mahabharata

A nine-hour version of the epic Indian poem that was created by Brook for the Avignon festival. It tells of the clash between two warring families and between good and evil.

1990 La Tempête, by William Shakespeare, in an adaptation Jean-Claude Carrière

Shakespeare’s desert island was represented by a rectangle of sand and a rock. A wooden crate represented the wrecked boat.

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