Peter Brook, human earthquake of modern theatre


1© The Gardian – Mickael Billington – March 2015

70-year career of a director with a touch of the showman who has always sought to bring reality to the stage.

The record books insist that Peter Brook will be 90 on Saturday. Personally, I find it hard to believe. I last bumped into Brook about 18 months ago at a new play about Kashmir at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I casually asked if he was staying in London for long. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve got to be back in Paris to rehearse tomorrow morning.”

There was something in the urgency of his tone that confirmed Brook is a director who lives totally in the present and who regards all theatre as a work-in-progress.

Brook himself hates looking back over his career: not so long ago he told me with horror of a letter he had received from a West End producer asking him to restage his famous white-box 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a modern audience.

But, even if Brook is immersed in the here-and-now, the rest of us are entitled to put his 70-year-long career in perspective and the stock idea is that it falls into two distinct parts. First, there was the British Brook who from 1945 to the early 1970s staged Shakespeare, opera, musicals, new plays and even commercial comedies with fizzing elan. Then there is the internationalist Brook who in 1972 set up a research centre in Paris and who has been involved in a quest to discover the essence of theatre and who, in projects such as The Man Who and The Valley of Astonishment, has used the medium to examine the working of the human brain.

It’s a neat division but, to me, Brook’s career is far more unified than it seems. It is perfectly true that the young Brook was famed for his exuberant theatricality. In 1953 Kenneth Tynan wrote: “Nobody could accuse Peter Brook of simplicity. His principal appeal is still to the theatrical gourmet, not to the fasting friar, he cooks with cream, blood and spices. Bread and water addicts must look elsewhere.”

Yet, as anyone who has seen Brook’s more recent productions of La Tragédie de Carmen, The Suit or Tierno Bokar will testify, he now offers a distilled form of theatre stripped of gaudiness and false spectacle.

But my contention that Brook’s career is all one is backed up by my own memories.

Even in his supposed blood-and-spices phase, he was a restless experimenter who saw the possibilities of “the empty space”. I’ve never forgotten a 1957 Straford Tempest which cleared the stage of clutter and showed Gielgud as an angry, unromantic Prospero relying on rough magic. Later, in the musical Irma La Douce, the hero escaped from prison in a tiny coracle that made its diagonal progress across a totally bare stage.

In Brook’s celebrated stagint of the ancient Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata in 1985 there was a similar ability to find the power in a single image: at one point a large cartwheel symbolised the warrior Karna’s chariot and the wholesale carnage it induced.

Brook’s genius, in short, has always lain in a search to find new ways to represent reality on stage. I don’t remember an ounce of blood in his landmark Titus Andronicus in 1955: what I do recall are the trailing red ribbons that flowed from the arms of Vivien Leigh’s mutilated Lavinia. And when Brook staged his simplified Carmen in 1981 our first glimpse of the heroine was not as some hip-swinging seductress but as a figure emerging from a heap of rags to extend a bony hand holding a Tarot card.

Yet, inside Brook the experimenter has always lurked a touch of the showman. I remember once asking him why, in Carmen, he suddenly introduced the blazing sound of a pre-recorded orchestra. “Well,” he said, “you know how it is. An audience always needs a lift three-quarters of the way through a show.”

If I had to pick out the key quality that has animated Brook’s career, however, it would be his insatiable curiosity. He’s fascinated by everything from the minutiae of technology to the latest theatrical production to the meaning of the universe. Whenever I meet him I’m reminded of King Lear who tells Cordelia that in prison they’ll discover “Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out And take upon us the mystery of things.” Brook loves to know what’s going on in the world.

At the same time he is fascinated by the mystery of things. That is why a lot of his later work has used theatre as a laboratory to explore the neurological sciences. In The Man Who (1993), based on the work of Oliver Sacks, he examined such matters as memory loss and Tourette’s syndrome. In Je suis un Phénomène (1998) and The Valley of Astonishment (2014) he focused on synaesthesia in which one sense is stimulated by another.

Brook’s later work has inspired scepticism in some quarters: there’s a fascinating exchange of letters with David Hare, recorded in Michael Kustow’s biography of Brook, where the playwright accuses Brook of draining his productions of a specific social context. But, while it makes for an intriguing correspondence, there is no doubt of Brook’s lasting influence on his profession. He is no mere mystic but a highly practical man of the theatre whose fingerprints can be discerned wherever one looks.

So how, when it comes down to it, has Brook changed modern theatre? He has, for a start, helped us to banish everything from the stage that is physically superfluous and to embrace the exciting provocation of an empty space. He has also taught us that the theatre of the future depends on cheap seats, a shared experience, a communal joy. He has radically influenced the way we look at Shakespeare: after Brook’s Lear, with its train of riotous knights, it became impossible to ever again see the play as a black-and-white affair about a good king driven mad by evil daughters.

But perhaps one of Brook’s least acknowledged achievements has been to see theatre as a totally inclusive medium where vaudeville, audience-participation and even comedy are perfectly compatible with an exploration of neurological disorder. There are endless facets to Brook’s multi-dimensional career. But, if we go on asking basic questions about what the medium is for and why it is worth preserving, we have this still-active 90-year-old human earthquake to thank for it