Theatre director Peter Brook was today (12 May 2009) honoured with the Critics’ Circle Award 2008, recognising his “distinguished service to the arts”.

At an informal lunchtime event held at the National Theatre, the award was presented to Brook by Guardian critic Michael Billington, who praised the director’s “humane curiosity”, his recognition of the “emotional possibility of the Empty Space”, his ongoing arts experimentation and research that has “sent vibrations around the world” and, overall, his “lifetime’s devotion” to celebrating theatre.

Peter Brook was born into a Russian-Jewish emigré family in London in 1925 (See “Peter Brook: Filling the Empty Space”, Features, 25 Aug 2003). In the 1950s, he veered between the West End, new work from France and opera at Covent Garden. By the 1960s, he was moving towards greater experimentation, with controversial works like Marat/Sade and the Vietnam-protest show US, films like Lord of the Flies and King Lear, and landmark stagings of Shakespeare, of which the most famous was the ‘white box’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Then, in 1970, at the height of his success, he moved to Paris where he later set up his Centre for International Theatre Research at Bouffes du Nord, which he transformed from a run-down former music hall into an “ideal theatre space” with a worldwide reputation. One of Brook’s most renowned productions here was the nine-hour epic The Mahabharata.

His 1968 book The Empty Space, defining four categories of theatre, has become a seminal theatrical text. (“I don’t know any young director who has not absorbed” this book, Billington commented today.)

In recent years, Brook has made regular visits back to the UK – to the Young Vic, Barbican and Warwick Arts Centre - with French-originated productions such as Fragments, Hamlet, Ta Main and The Suit. At the end of last year, Brook, now 84, announced that he and his co-director Micheline Rosan will be stepping down from their positions at Bouffes du Nord in 2010 (See The Goss, 23 Dec 2008).

At today’s lunch, Brook noted wryly that, of all the prize-givings he’d attended in his career, he’d spoken about every aspect of theatre – except the critics. It is, he said, “completely new, unknown territory (for me) ... a new investigation”. Looking back at the reviews he’s received over the years, “I have never felt touched or grateful for a good notice because I think, well, I could have written that myself.”

More useful, Brook said, is the well-informed “good bad notice”, which “when one comes back to it, opens a whole new line of thought ... this is so precious”. He thanked the critics for these notices, for their years of knowledge and reflection and for that “special aspiration to go beyond”, the desire to “keep alive this sense of ‘all of this – and more’”. He concluded: “I’m very happy and touched to be brought into your circle because I believe that it’s a circle that encloses us all.”

The Critics’ Circle Annual Award is separate from the annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards (See News, 27 Jan 2009), which reward specific productions and performances from the past year and are held in January by the Drama Section of the Circle (the Dance and Film sections also hold separate awards). The Annual Award is voted for by members from all five sections of the Circle, which also including Music as well as Art and Architecture. It’s awarded to an individual in the arts in recognition of their body of work.

Previous winners of the Annual Award, first presented in 1988, have included Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Judi Dench, Harold Pinter, Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Alan Bennett and, most recently, another theatre nominee, Tom Stoppard.

- by Terri Paddock