Peter Brook, mystical giant who changed theater forever, dies aged 97

PARIS, France (AFP) – Peter Brook, who died Saturday at the age of 97, was one of the most influential theater directors of the 20th century and reinvented the art by reducing it to the most fundamental and powerful elements of drama.

An almost mystical figure who is often mentioned in the same breath as Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian who revolutionized acting. Brook continued to work well into the ’90s, challenging audiences.

Best known for his 1985 masterpiece The Mahabharata, a nine-hour version of the Hindu epic, he has lived in Paris since the early 1970s, where he founded the International Center for Theater Research in an old music hall called the Bouffes du North.

A child prodigy who made his professional directorial debut at just 17, Brook was a unique talent from the start.

In 1964 he enchanted audiences in London and New York with his epoch-making Tony Award-winning Marat/Sade and three years later wrote The Empty Space, one of the most influential theater texts of all time.

Its opening lines became a manifesto for a generation of young performers who would forge the fringe and alternative theater scenes.

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

“A man walks across an empty space while someone else watches him, and that is all that is required for a theatrical act…”

Theater director Peter Brook (L) gives instructions to his actors Romane Bohringer (R) and Ken Higelin during a rehearsal of William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ during the 44th Avignon International Theater Festival, southern France, July 11, 1991. (GEORGES GOBET/ AFP)

For many, Brooks’ stunning 1970 staging of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a white gymnasium was a turning point in world theatre.

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

African Odyssey

Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925 to a family of Jewish scientists who immigrated from Latvia and was an acclaimed director in London’s West End in his mid-20s.

Before his 30th birthday he directed hits on Broadway.

But driven by a love of experimentation, which he had inherited from his parents, Brook soon “exhausted the possibilities of conventional theatre”.

His first film, Lord of the Flies (1963), an adaptation of the William Golding novel about schoolboys stranded on an island who turn to the wild, became an instant classic.

When he brought a production of King Lear to Paris a few years later, he developed an interest in working with actors from different cultures.

He moved permanently to the French capital in 1971 and the following year embarked on a 13,600-kilometer odyssey across Africa with a group of actors including Mirren and Japanese legend Yoshi Oida to test his ideas.

Drama critic John Heilpern, who documented her journey in a bestseller, said Brook believes theater is about freeing the audience’s imagination.

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

“As someone stepped onto the carpet, the show started. There was no script or common language.”

But the grueling journey took its toll on his companions, most of whom contracted dysentery or tropical diseases.

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

She broke up with Brook soon after.

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

‘Mahabharata’ Masterpiece

Brook continued to experiment at Bouffes du Nord and toured his productions around the globe.

His major milestone after The Mahabharata was 1993’s L’Homme Qui, based on Oliver Sacks’ best-selling book on neurological dysfunction, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.

Brook triumphantly returned to Britain in 1997, starring in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days and his wife Natasha Parry.

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

Theater and film director Peter Brook poses during the photocall of ‘The Tightrope’ during the 69th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido, September 5, 2012. (Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

After his 85th birthday in 2010, Brook relinquished leadership of the Bouffes du Nord but continued to direct there.

Eight years later, at the age of 92, he wrote and directed The Prisoner, starring Marie-Helene Estienne – one of the two women he shared his life with.

The real story is based on his own spiritual journey to Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion to make a 1978 film called Meetings with Remarkable Men.

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

With his calm, intellectual, and charismatic voice, Brook himself was often viewed as something of a Sufi.

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

Despite failing eyesight, he never stopped working.

“I have a responsibility to be as positive and creative as possible,” he told The Guardian. “Giving in to despair is the ultimate way out,” he said.

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