Recently I saw an interview with Peter Brook as he publicised his latest book. For a man of almost 90, he both looked in good physical condition and spoke lucidly and engagingly.
When I first became interested in the theatre 40 years ago, Peter Brook was the king over the water. The Englishman who had made his reputation in classical theatre in the UK, and whose past productions were regularly referenced in any discussion on theatre I ever read or heard, but who had abandoned the theatre establishment here in favour of running an unconventional theatre in Paris.
Around that same time was published John Heilpern’s book Conference of the Birds. It is an account of a trip made by Brook and a multi-national acting group through north-west Africa. Although a lot of the impact of the book comes from Heilpern’s own writing, it is first and foremost a story of Brook’s creative energy, innovation and leadership.
Brook returned to prominence in the late 1980s through his championing of a large new UK performance space, not in London but in Glasgow. To the former transport depot which became the Tramway, he brought the only British performances of The Mahabharata and The Tragedy of Carmen. Both were filmed and shown on Channel 4 in those far-off glory days of adventurous programming.
My own belated experience of a Brook production was La Tempête, his version of The Tempest, at the Tramway in 1990. Given my long-time fascination with the director, fuelled by other writers’ descriptions, I do remember being a little underwhelmed with it. A few details which I recall include its multi-national cast (including one or two actors, such as Bruce Myers, whom I knew as colourful characters from Conference of the Birds) and its stripped-down feel, similar to that captured again by Julie Taymor in her fine film.
Brook’s ideas and practice – which he freely admitted had been drawn from earlier figures like Artaud and Meyerhold – made a big impression on me as I explored the art of the theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of his concerns in the book The Empty Space seem now a bit old-fashioned and his ideas to have been overtaken somewhat by cultural fashion. As a young man already involved in theatre, he was profoundly affected by some stark, stripped-down productions he saw in the mid-1940s, such as one of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in war-damaged Hamburg. By the late 1960s, when the lectures of The Empty Space were delivered, he had become horrified by familiar interpretations and expensive admission prices, especially on Broadway, and thrilled by the long rehearsals and dedicated approach of the Berliner Ensemble. He believed that high art should draw on elements of popular culture, but not, perhaps surprisingly, that it should specifically seek to be “relevant” to draw a wider audience.
The best theatre often takes place outside conventional theatre spaces, he felt. One of my own most memorable experiences was certainly a production of As You Like It in a church hall in during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe of 1979, with the young cast moving and speaking just a few feet away from where I sat. Brook emphasised the value of placing together apparently discordant elements to create a fresh interpretation. That low-budget As You Like It used modern dress and sometimes even changed Shakespeare’s language to reflect this: Celia referred to Rosalind in her “dungarees” rather than in her ”doublet and hose”.
Modern trends for site-specific, “immersive” and outdoor theatre certainly follow some of Brook’s own explorations, although he did not anticipate that the art form would become as marginalised as it has been by the increased popularity of film, television and music.
One of Brook’s later productions which I had not known about was Hamlet, in 2000, starring the now-famous Adrian Lester, supported by some Brook stalwarts from the days of Conference of the Birds and The Mahabharata. It was televised (with the BBC as one of the partner producers, amazingly) and, like The Mahabarata and The Tragedy of Carmen, is currently available on You Tube. A rare opportunity now to assess the work of the director whom Kenneth Tynan once described, when Brook was already almost 50 years of age, as “the last authentic enfant terrible of stagecraft that the English theatre has produced”.
Heilpern, John (1979) Conference of the Birds : the Story of Peter Brook in Africa Harmondsworth : Penguin
Brook, Peter (1972) The Empty Space Harmondsworth : Penguin
Tynan, Kenneth (1984) A View of the English Stage 1944-1963 London : Methuen