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Obituary: ground-breaking theatre director Peter Brook dies at 97

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Peter Brook, who has died in Paris at the age of 97, was one of the greatest theatre directors of the 20th century. A visionary and pioneering artist, his ground-breaking approach revolutionised theatre practice. His landmark 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company redefined the way we think about Shakespeare and had a profound influence on theatre-makers for decades.

His seminal 1968 book The Empty Space, distilling theatre to its basics, became a bible for anyone wanting to work in theatre, its arresting opening image of a man walking across an empty space the foundation of much of his creative output. His genius was to give simple concrete expression to the most elusive of ideas and emotions: to create vivid stage pictures that could transport you into other worlds or other minds. His final production was The Tempest Project in April this year: an exploration of Shakespeare’s late, great play. And in his own way Brook was, like Prospero, a stage magician, conjuring meaning from the humblest of objects — a pole or a length of cloth.

Born in London in 1925 to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Brook studied at Oxford where he began making films and by the age of 22 he was working at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as an assistant director. From 1947 he spent three years as director of productions at the Royal Opera House, where he caused uproar by staging Richard Strauss’s Salome with sets by Salvador Dalí. He forged a fruitful partnership with John Gielgud and balanced commercial success with radical insights. His harrowing 1955 staging of Titus Andronicus, with Laurence Olivier at the helm, foreshadowed some of what was to follow.

In 1962 he joined the infant Royal Shakespeare Company and began to push hard at the boundaries that constrained bourgeois theatre. Together with Charles Marowitz, he led the company’s Theatre of Cruelty season, staging Peter Weiss’s provocative Marat/Sade (1964) and the anti-Vietnam War piece US (1966). “Nothing lets us off the hook so much as hearing a comforting lie,” he said in a 2021 BBC interview with actor Glenda Jackson, who starred in Marat/Sade.

His path-breaking Shakespeare productions scoped the breadth of the playwright’s work: a bleak, comfortless King Lear (1962) with the superlative Paul Scofield; the exhilarating Dream which, staged in a white cube with actors suspended on trapezes and walking on stilts, translated the magic in the text into the physical magic of circus.

But he began to chafe at the limitations of conventional theatre. In 1970 he left the UK to travel the world, exploring different stage practices, performing in found spaces, searching for immediacy of communication and trying to work, as he put it, “outside contexts”. Experiments included the extraordinary Orghast (1971), performed in several archaic languages and a new one, invented by poet Ted Hughes, which sought a purity of sound similar to music.

In Paris he created, together with Micheline Rozan, the International Centre for Theatre Research in 1971. They set up base in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a beautiful, dilapidated old music hall just behind the Gare du Nord (Brook recalled that at the first performance the applause brought chunks of the ceiling down). In this modest venue, he and a multinational company of artists spent months or even years developing pieces. He disliked the term “director”, preferring to describe himself as a “guide” or an “explorer”, which better matched the collaborative nature of creative practice.

Out of this centre came a rich and wide-ranging programme, including a luminous Cherry Orchard starring his wife Natasha Parry (they married in 1951 and had two children, Irina and Simon) and The Mahabharata (1985), one of the highlights of his career. Throughout this nine-hour staging of the Indian epic, Brook and his designer Chloe Obolensky used earth, water, fire and air to create unforgettable images, sending rings of fire licking across the sand and arrows raining over the stage. The effect was stunning, travelling from conflict to harmony and transporting audiences to another world.

Brook joked that the success of that show created a clamour for more ancient epics — “I was now the specialist on Old Myth,” he said — a clamour which he resisted, turning instead to delicate miniatures, to parables and to a sequence of plays exploring the human mind. The first of these was 1993’s The Man Who, based on the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks; the most recent, The Valley of Astonishment (2014), drew on the experience of synaesthesia.

That impish resistance to pigeonholing was characteristic. In person he was mercurial, part Prospero, part Puck: a tiny, soft-spoken man with piercing pale-blue eyes and a penchant for brightly coloured shirts. He combined a sage-like stillness, pressing his fingertips together in grave thought, with a mischievous sense of humour and a shrewd worldly streak. Asked how to expand audience numbers he responded, “Cheap seats.”

Brook’s career spanned a remarkable eight decades, during which he won multiple Emmy Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, the Japanese Praemium Imperiale and the Prix Italia. Having declined a knighthood, he was awarded a Companion of Honour in 1998; in 2021, he was awarded India’s Padma Shri. In France, where his reputation was especially treasured, he was made Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur in 2013.

His work encompassed illuminating written works as well as a colossal body of theatre. Not all the work matched up to his heights: his rigorously stripped-back style became both more familiar and more repetitive as time went on. But his insistence on interrogating how we make theatre, who makes it, where we perform it and who watches it was genuinely pioneering and has its legacy everywhere in contemporary theatre.

He never lost his keen curiosity: the restless desire to comprehend and the urge to translate that instinct into a shared experience. “You’re not given everything on a plate: you have to search and work for it . . . right until the last breath,” he said in 2021. He brought to all his work an abiding belief in the humane potential of live theatre to play a part in that search and to enlarge our understanding. “What we need more and more is to savour more fully any moment of life,” he told the Financial Times in 2014. “And I think the theatre can do this.”

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