Peter Brook: the great seeker of British theatre

The two key British theatre directors of the middle decades of the 20th century were near-contemporaries and close friends called Peter. But while Peter Hall was instrumental in setting up and running the biggest theatres – first the Royal Shakespeare Company and then the National Theatre – Peter Brook set himself up to run away from them. He spent the last five decades of his career at a theatre of his own in Paris, where he worked on long and idiosyncratic projects that would come to the UK only as a date on a world tour.

But, despite this long absence, which he disliked being described as an exile, Brook’s impact on the theatre of his home country was huge. Directors, especially of the classics, are often at their best with either the visual or the verbal aspects of theatre, but Brook was brilliant at both.

His two key Shakespearean productions in England placed the most musically nuanced speakers of their generations – Paul Scofield and Alan Howard – in stagings of King Lear (1962) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970). The productions were chromatic opposites: the tragedy looked dark, bleak, doomy (Brook rejected Technicolor for his 1971 movie version) while the comedy, famously staged on a set of circus trapezes, was bright, white, light.

Generations of younger directors learned from Brook the possibility of respecting the poetry while ignoring the stage directions, to create an experience that somehow simultaneously has both nothing and everything to do with Shakespeare. These achievements were usefully encapsulated in a short but thought-packed book, The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare (2013), which characteristically combined practical stagecraft with literary and psychological insights.

Brook’s lasting effect on theatre has been even greater through his 1968 book The Empty Space, which remains in print and much-studied. It offered a challenge to the postwar British fashion for building massive drama factories with multiple stages.

In the book Brook discusses four types of theatrical performance that he categorises as “deadly”, “holy”, “rough” and “immediate”. Deadliness encompassed most of what was on offer in the commercial theatre and the stuffier productions in subsidised houses – work done conventionally for conservative audiences – while holiness represented the potential of the best theatre to achieve some level of transcendence for both performers and audiences.

Roughness encouraged the absence, in some circumstances, of elaborate preparations and props; the director had been much affected by an improvised theatrical performance staged after the second world war in the bombed ruins of the Hamburg Opera House. Because Brook did not always achieve in print the clarity that was his signature on stage, immediacy was a more elusive concept, involving the bringing together of tradition and innovation, but it has been interpreted as another argument against being bounded by a building. The preference among subsequent British directors such as Michael Grandage and Kenneth Branagh for temporary residences or pop-up venues reflects Brook’s vision of creative freedom.

Although Brook had regular premises in Paris – the Bouffes du Nord, described by Richard Eyre as “the most congenial theatre I know” – he used this base for theatrical explorations without borders which, he hoped then to take around the globe.

The Mahabharata, on which Brook worked with his frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière for at least a decade, was based on a Sanskrit epic, and sought to achieve a universal comprehensibility through image and gesture. The same aim led to The Conference of the Birds, based on a 12th-century Persian poem, and Tierno Bokar, a bio-drama about a Malian sufi.

Brook’s conviction that he would have been artistically and temperamentally unsuited to presiding over government-funded behemoths such as the National Theatre and the RSC was certainly true in the area of new writing. Brook’s interest in living dramatists of his own nationality was more or less limited to a production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. One of his most successful later stage productions was an adaptation of Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and he made an impressive film version of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1963).

For him, the key modern dramatists were the Irish-French Samuel Beckett and the French Antonin Artaud. The “theatre of cruelty” promoted by Artaud shaped two pieces of new writing on which Brook worked in the mid-60s: Marat/Sade (1964), by the German dramatist Peter Weiss, and US (1966), an improvised anti-Vietnam protest play. Highly controversial at the time for their scenes of nudity and violence, including the burning of a butterfly, these works are now generally seen as embarrassingly of their period.

Brook’s interest in eastern cultures extended to regimes of diet and exercise that kept him physically and mentally vigorous into his 90s. He remained a guru for directors who had stayed on the other side of the Channel, wrestling with English tastes and funding. The published diaries of Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, describing their years running the National Theatre, both featured entries in which they took the plane or train to Paris to discuss difficulties with Brook, clearly envying the apparent ease and comfort of his professional and private arrangements there.

Some other British directors, in private conversation, felt Brook had failed to do his duty to arts in the UK. Brook was bemused by this criticism, convinced that he had left the British artistic directorships to people much better equipped to do them. Another criticism was that the leisurely rehearsal periods and messianic receptions available in France sometimes edged his work towards pretension and self-indulgence. There were two sides of Brook’s creative personality – Shakespearean and shamanistic – and doubters tended to prefer the former to the latter.

Brook’s final works continued to reflect this dichotomy. His book The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare (2013) was a brilliant compression of a lifetime’s intellectual and practical theatrical insights into England’s greatest playwright. Its subject matter and tone sometimes suggested a valedictory volume, but Brook found the time and energy to extend the shelf with a work about the power of words, Tip of the Tongue (2017), and another about the uses of music, Playing by Ear (2019).

However, his last stage productions in his home country – both co-directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne, the major collaborator of his later years – suggested that Brook’s non-Shakespearean theatre was now better in theory than practice. The Prisoner, which poignantly visited the National just a week after the memorial service for Peter Hall, was a meditation on crime and punishment that contained some thrilling ideas and images. But, tellingly, a scene featuring a real fire but an imagined rat hinted that Brook’s directorial imagination was now butting up against stricter theatrical safety regulations. Similarly, in the previous work with Estienne, The Valley of Astonishment, a piece about synaesthesia seen at the Young Vic in 2014, a key moment was described, rather than shown, because it was not actable. This must have been frustrating for Brook, but was for the audience as well.

His next theatre piece, Why?, was atypically retrospective and self-reflective, featuring three favourite actors exploring the life and ideas of the Russian theatrical innovator, Vsevolod Meyerhold, who greatly influenced Brook. Starting in Paris, it toured Europe and the US. To launch Playing by Ear, Brook, in late October 2019, defied failing sight and physical frailty to enthral a National Theatre audience with 45 minutes of brainy but playful thoughts on the performing arts. A disapproving silence fell when Brook described the butterfly-burning moment in his show US, until the director revealed that theatre-goers had been fooled: the blazing insect had been made of paper, substituted by last minute sleight of hand for a real creature that was not harmed. The next month, Brook was given a lifetime achievement award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in London, but, hospitalised in Paris after a fall, was unable to travel, his daughter Irina receiving the trophy, and a grateful ovation, on his behalf.

Histories of 20th century British theatre will contain numerous references to the two Peters. Hall’s immense achievement was to create the cultural cathedrals in Stratford and London, and make UK culture unthinkable without them. Brook, though, had greater influence on the imaginations of the directors who work inside those buildings and, following another of his examples, increasingly outside them.

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