Groundbreaking British theater director Peter Brook, whose enormous influence has reached the world, has died at the age of 97.
Brook redefined the way we think about theater with his productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford; at the Bouffes du Nord, the dilapidated Parisian music hall he has made his base for more than 30 years; in African villages, where its actors improvise shows; and on the grand and modest stages visited by his ensemble of globetrotters.
Many of his productions have been celebrated for stripping theater of the superfluous and distilling drama to the essentials, presented with a clear eye and elegant touch. Brook’s iconic 1970 RSC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, influenced by both a Jerome Robbins ballet and the Beijing Circus, was performed in a white cube of a set and boasted trapeze , stilts and a forest of steel wire. In other tell-all Shakespeare productions, he directed John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry, to whom Brook was married. His productions were renowned for their diversity, with Brook pioneering what he called “color-rich” casting, as opposed to “color-blind” casting.
He also directed musicals, staged the American play of protest against the Vietnam War, co-created an experimental version of the myth of Prometheus with Ted Hughes and, in a French career in 1985, mounted a famous version of nine hours of Mahabharata. He returns to the Sanskrit epic with his 2016 production Battlefield, directed with his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne.
One of theatre’s most visionary and influential thinkers, he wrote several publications including The Empty Space (1968), the opening of which lays out his vision: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man crosses this empty space, while someone else watches him, and that’s all it takes for a theatrical act to begin.
Kenneth Tynan said Brook’s work was aimed at the “theatrical foodie” as he “cooks with cream, blood and spices”. Brook also worked in film, including a 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and in opera, making radically stripped-down productions of Carmen and The Magic Flute.
He was born in London on March 21, 1925, and aged seven played a four-hour version of Hamlet for his parents on his own. After attending Magdalen College, Oxford, he soon entered the Royal Opera House, conducting Richard Strauss’ opera Salome with designs by Salvador Dalí. He directed Olivier as Titus Andronicus in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1955 and when Peter Hall became artistic director of the RSC in 1958 he asked Brook to help him there. Brook’s RSC productions included a 1962 staging of King Lear – the play he considered “the supreme achievement of world theatre” – which starred Paul Scofield.
Several of his shows transferred to Broadway, including the avant-garde Marat/Sade, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1964. The concept of the show was that the Marquis de Sade was putting on a drama about the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat played by inmates of a mental asylum.
In 1970, Brook moved to Paris where he created his International Center for Theater Research. The company traveled to Africa where its actors gave performances that “didn’t use anything that corresponded to the theater of the time – we wanted to perform in front of an audience that wasn’t conditioned by anything. We wouldn’t make, even experimentally, a piece with a text or a theme or a name.
In 1974, he transformed an abandoned music hall located behind the Gare du Nord into an essential destination for theater lovers: the Bouffes du Nord. The dilapidated building has undergone only minimal renovation, so its walls remain as scorched as when Brook found them. He opened the theater with a production of Timon of Athens and the applause knocked off pieces of the ceiling.
The Man Who, which premiered in Paris in 1993, was inspired by neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which revisited the troubles of Sacks’ patients. Brook’s own neurological research led to his play The Valley of Astonishment, about synesthesia, co-created with Estienne and performed at the Young Vic in London with Kathryn Hunter among the cast.
Brook directed Scofield and Lester as Hamlet for the screen as well as the stage, and his Mahabharata also became an epic television series. He was made CBE in 1965 and Companion of Honor in 1998. His production The Prisoner was staged in Paris and at the Edinburgh Festival and the National Theater in London in 2018. This spring he resumed work on his piece Project Stormadapted and produced with Estienne.
In a 2017 interview with Michael Billington, Brook explained how important it is to “swim against the tide and achieve everything we can in our chosen field. Fate dictated that mine was that of theater and within that I have a responsibility to be as positive and creative as possible. Giving in to despair is the ultimate escape.
Brook married actor Natasha Parry in 1951 and they had two children, Irina and Simon, both of whom became theater managers. Parry died in 2015.