Paris-based British theater visionary Peter Brook dies at 97

Peter Brook, who died at the age of 97, was one of the most influential theater directors of the 20th century, reinventing the art by bringing it back to the most fundamental and powerful elements of theatre.

Brook, born in Britain but residing in France for decades, died on Saturday, French newspaper Le Monde reported, citing the director’s entourage.

“Peter Brook has given us the most beautiful silences in the theater, but this last silence is infinitely sad,” wrote Rima Abdul Malak, French Minister of Culture, on Twitter.

“With him, the scene was brought back to its most vivid intensity. He bequeathed so much to us,” she added, saying he would “forever remain the soul” of the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris where his work was based.

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 his 90s.

Best known for his 1985 masterpiece “Le Mahabharata”, a nine-hour version of the Hindu epic, he lived in Paris from the early 1970s, where he established the International Center for Theater Research at the Bouffes du Nord, a former music hall.

A prodigy who made his professional directorial debut at age 17, Brook was a singular talent early on.

He mesmerized audiences in London and New York with his era-defining ‘Marat/Sade’ in 1964, which won a Tony Award, and wrote ‘The Empty Space’, one of the most influential lyrics on the theater three years later.

Its first lines became a manifesto for a generation of young performers who were to shape the scenes of marginal and alternative theatre.

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

“A man walks through an empty space while someone else watches, and that’s all it takes for a theatrical act…”

For many, Brook’s startling 1970 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a gymnasium of white cubes was a turning point in the theater world.

It inspired actress Helen Mirren to abandon her burgeoning mainstream career to join her fledgling experimental company in Paris.

African Odyssey

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

Before his 30th birthday, he was making hits on Broadway.

But driven by a passion for experimentation he inherited 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 abandoned schoolchildren on an island who turn to savagery, is an instant classic.

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

In 1971, he settled permanently in the French capital and left the following year with a group of actors including Mirren and Japanese legend Yoshi Oida on a 13,600 kilometer (8,500 mile) odyssey across Africa to test their ideas.

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

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

“When someone walked onto the mat, the show started. There was no script or no shared language.

But the grueling journey took a toll on Brook’s company, most of whom fell ill with dysentery or tropical diseases.

Mirren later described it as “the scariest thing I’ve ever done. There was nothing to cling to.”

She separated from Brook soon after.

He “thought fame was mean and tasteless…I just wanted my name up there,” she told AFP.

“The best director that London doesn’t have”

Brook continued to experiment at Bouffes du Nord, touring his productions around the world.

His big landmark after “The Mahabharata” was “The Man Whoin 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 with Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” and his wife, actress Natasha Parry, in the lead.

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

After turning 85 in 2010, Brook gave up managing Bouffes du Nord but continued to lead there.

Eight years later, at 92, he wrote and directed “Le Prisonnier” with Marie-Hélène Estienne – one of the two women with whom he shared his life.

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

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

Soft-spoken, cerebral, and charismatic, Brook was often seen as a Sufi himself.

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

Yet he never stopped working despite failing 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


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