At 91 Peter Brook has had theatre in his blood for 84 years




British theatre and film director Peter Brook has had theatre in his blood for 84 years, or perhaps longer. At the age of seven he staged a grand production of Hamlet for his family and friends. The multiple award winner and recipient of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is known as Britain’s greatest living director.

Based in France since the 1970s, Peter Stephen Paul Brook (1925-) was born in Chiswick, London. His parents Simon and Ida were Jewish immigrants from Latvia.

His first commercial production was ‘Dr Faustus’ in 1943, at the age of 18, at the Torch Theatre in London, and his first Shakespeare production was at the age of 21. Throughout his life – from 1945 to 2010 – he has staged eleven productions of William Shakespeare’s plays, deconstructing Elizabethan drama with ease.

In 1970, with Micheline Rozan, Brook founded the International Centre for Theatre Research. In the mid 1970s he began work with writer Jean-Claude Carrière on the adaption of the Indian epic poem, ‘The Mahabharata.’ It was performed in 1985 to critical acclaim.

Brook had a simple idea of making the “invisible visible” which he continued in all of his productions. This phrase in his 1968 book ‘The Empty Space’ referred to thought and ideas, and emotions and imagination: ‘all things in the life of human beings that are invisible or intangible.’ Artists regard his book, ‘The Empty Space’ as the must-have text on modern theatre. The phrase ‘empty space’ refers to a pared down stage, often dirt or a large carpet to demarcate the playing space.

He began his ‘simplistic stage’ idea after the Second World War in Berlin, where he used a bombed building as a performance space for his production of ‘Crime and Punishment’ without sophisticated lights, sound systems, curtains, dressing rooms or a foyer.

In his production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in 1970, Brook used his concept of the empty space with moving and floating objects and actors suspended on swings. In effect, he ‘uncluttered’ his productions.

Brook also embraced the ‘avant-garde’ movement in theatre that focused on human consciousness: the Theatre of the Absurd. He was greatly influenced by Samuel Beckett, and created groundbreaking productions of major works by Jean Genet and Friederich Dürrenmatt, among others.

In 2005, at 80, Brook directed the production ‘Tierno Bokar’ based on the life of the Sufi mystic, Tierno Bokar, from Mali in west Africa. The play was adapted for the stage by Marie-Hélène Estienne from a book by Amadou Hampate Ba. The English translation of Hampate Ba’s book is called ‘A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar.’ The message of the play is religious tolerance.

At age 85, Brook produced his final version of Estienne’s adaptation of Amadou Hampate Ba’s work, which Brook called ‘11 and 12’ (although it was a reworked production of ‘Tierno Bokar’). The opening of the play focused on Bokar’s wisdom as a teacher. Bokar’s words, preserved in the play, include the following passage:

There are three truths: my truth, your truth, and the truth … Our truths are crescent moons situated on one side or another of the perfect circle of the full moon. Most of the time, when we argue and only listen to ourselves, our crescent moons turn their backs on one another. First we must turn them back toward one another, then our two crescent moons will be face to face, they will gradually come closer and closer and perhaps in the end meet one another in the great circle of truth.

Amadou Hampate Ba’s vision of the crescent moons is replicated by Brook when he places actors in a large circle to focus their energies, especially when he is exploring conflict and its resolution in ‘the great circle of truth.’

Married to his long-time collaborator, Natasha Parry, is was she who introduced Brook to author GI Gurdijeff, a spiritual pioneer. She died in July 2015 at the age of 84. Brook continues to explore the themes of spirituality, religious tolerance, the empty space, and making the invisible visible.



Photographs: by (top) and (bottom

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