West London wunderkind

Peter Brook was born in 1925 in West London, the child of Latvian emigres. He had a comfortable upbringing playing with toy theatres, staging conjuring shows for his parents, an educated childhood: books, music, theatre and films. He became a dauntingly precocious Oxford undergraduate who thought nothing of approaching 'The Great Beast' - the black magician Alasteir Crowley - to ask for his help in raising spirits in Doctor Faustus. He wanted more than anything to be a film director, and because he thought he'd have to serve an intolerably long apprenticeship, he slipped into the theatre, where it's often enough to say you're a director to convince someone to allow you to become one.

At the age of 20, he was directing Paul Scofield at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. When he was 21 he was directing Love's Labour's Lost at Stratford and had become a phenomenon. Enfant terrible! Wunderkind! He became Director of productions at the Royal Opera House at the age of 22 and, in a wilfully self-destructive mood, invited Salvador Dali to design a production of Salome. Sadly, this was never staged: the design required the Thames to be diverted so that an ocean liner could burst through the back wall of the Covent Garden stage

For many years he was a prodigiously busy and (mostly) successful freelance director in London, New York and Paris: new plays by Grahame Greene, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Whiting; opera at Covent Garden and at the Met in New York; Measure for Measure, Titus Andronicus, The Winter's Tale, Hamlet, The Tempest in Stratford and London; and musicals - the delightful Irma La Douce, the sensationally unsuccessful The Perils of Scobie Prilt about a gossip columnist, the scarcely more successful House of Flowers by Truman Capote.

In 1960 he filmed Marguerite Duras' novel, Moderato Cantabile with Jeanne Moreau, and in the following year William Golding's Lord of the Flies. When he returned to the theatre after an absence of two years to direct King Lear at Stratford, it seemed he'd done with the 'train set' side of theatre - what he described as the 'quincaillerie' (the ironmongery) of stage production - which had so fascinated him as an absurdly young and confident director of theatre and opera.

With his elemental production of King Lear, it was clear that he was embarked on a different course, one that took him over the next eight years into an exploration of Artaud, into The Marat/Sade, into a politically engaged show about the Vietnam War, Tell Me Lies, an awkward and ill-fated production of Seneca's Oedipus, and then in 1970 into his glorious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which for once earned that over-exercised adjective: celebratory.


Then he went. At the age of 45, Brook left the world of first nights at Stratford, or London, New York or Paris - escaped the infection of self-doubt, the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism. He exempted himself from the mid-life crisis that affects most theatre directors (not always in mid-life), which comes from repetition, from constant barter and compromise, from a frustration at not being an 'auteur' and an inability to re-invent the medium.

With hindsight, Brook's self-exile from British theatre seems unsurprising: he had spent his professional life in flight from what one of his actors caricatured as "the bloody British theatre" - insular, class-bound, text-bound, earth-bound. And there was then (and is now) an engrossing cosiness, a repressive tolerance and reassurance in the British theatre (or British culture in general), that often goes hand in hand with being pragmatic to a fault, that has made exiles out of Joan Littlewood, Granville-Barker, and Gordon Craig, and a recluse out of Edward Bond. "England destroys artists," said Brook. "Their edge is rapidly knocked off ... No one presses them to do anything - all they do is create a climate in which the artist will only too readily castrate himself."

On the other hand, it's precisely the rough empiricism that has been part of the continuing strength of British theatre - its eagerness to absorb theatre from other cultures and its willingness to adapt to existing resources of talent and money. By eschewing that pragmatism, Brook has sometimes subverted his work by turning seriousness into solemnity, leading to impenetrable gnomic thinking - "The enigma of tradition and the mystery of transmission cannot change, but the great set of keys is always there" - and opaque work such as his production of Oedipus at the National Theatre and The Ik the Roundhouse.

Centre for Theatre Research

Brook withdrew from British theatre and set up a Centre for Theatre Research (CIRT) in Paris, funded by an American corporate foundation, and two years later took over a disused music-hall - the Bouffes du Nord - and made it his theatrical home. His work became an explicit search for meaning, a spiritual quest. Spiritual enlightenment is either the search for an inner world or it's a flight from the outer one; theatre is a re-creation of another world, even more intense, distilled, meaningful and real than the 'real' one. When he was the same age as Brook, Stanislavsky wrote this to Meyerhold, "I have utterly lost faith in everything that serves the eye and ear on stage, I only trust feeling and most of all, nature herself. It is wiser and more subtle than we are."

Brook embarked with his theatre family - a group of 15 actors - on a succession of journeys, explorations of the nature of theatre and the nature of nature, to Iran (funded by the Shah of Iran) to perform a play written by Ted Hughes in an invented language, a fusion of Greek, Latin, Spanish, speech and chant and song, which was mystical, ritualistic, and obscure, but deeply moving according to those few people who shared the experience on a mountain top in the small hours of the morning -"a great precious thing beyond words", said Hughes; to West Africa to re-invent theatre from scratch, playing stories on a carpet laid out on sand to audiences who shared no language or social or artistic conventions with the actors; to California, to perform improvised sketches for strikers with El Teatro Campesino, a politically committed theatre group led by Luis Valdez, and to Colorado, Minnesota and Brooklyn to perform versions of a Sufi poem, The Conference of the Birds.

"Exploring life beyond the clichés" was what Brook said they were doing. Life and theatre merged seamlessly. They risked privation, physical and mental exhaustion, foolishness, self-delusion, and even emptiness. What did it lead to? Eventually in 1985, to The Mahabharata, adapted from the world's longest narrative poem, the core of Hindu culture: a trilogy of plays, adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere, first performed in a quarry in Avignon. It told the story of two warring families, a society on the edge of collapse, and ended with a vision of Paradise - peace, harmony forgiveness - as the first light of dawn broke over the cliff's edge.

An unmistakeable imprint

The production was at heart a story told to a small boy for a small group of spectators, and in spite of its size and its sophistication, it never lost its simplicity. It was performed by 20 actors and musicians with a few simple props and exquisite emblematic costumes on a floor of red earth. It made a patchwork of different theatre styles and traditions, different nationalities, races and accents: it held stage magic, ritual and psychological reality within a Shakespearean span, arching over private and public lives - vast sweeping battles following moments of intense intimacy.

A snake of flame twisted out of the dark, pulling a dancer in its wake, a torch-lit battle ended with a nuclear flare; arrows appeared to fly across the stage, horses to gallop; the elements of the production were the elements of life - earth, fire, air and water. The staging had the flair, brilliance and bravura that could have been attention-seeking were it not so obviously the consequence of trying to find the most expressive way of telling the story.

For all that his work bears his unmistakable imprint, Brook's shows confer authority on the performer rather than celebrate the director. His effects are achieved through speech and movement, utterly pragmatically. "Rehearsing," he says, "is thinking aloud with others ... nothing in a theatre performance is more important than the people of whom it is composed."

That thought was exemplified in his lucid productions at the Bouffes du Nord of The Cherry Orchard and The Tempest, and of Carmen and Peleas et Melisande, where he succeeded in making fresh theatre out of the most intractable and least demotic of forms: opera. His work in Paris has had a sense of resolution, conspicuous after a lifetime of febrile search for peace in theatre, and in film as a flight from theatre, and in travel as a flight from both film and theatre, and in Paris as a flight from London.

Writing, directing, defining

Brook has been more like a writer than a director: his productions have developed, one from another, like a writer pursuing a theme. His theatrical experiments seem to have been attempts to square the circle of the genius he has for directing and the desire he has to be the author of the event. He has thus triumphed over the endemic frustration of directors, stuck with the role of mediator, suspended between the writer's need to impel the play forward, and the actor's desire to stand still and create a character.

In The Man Who, the director and 'author' became indivisibly linked. The show was based on Oliver Sacks' clinical accounts of dealing with several varieties of neural and mental dysfunction, such as aphasia, ataxia, aphonia, aphemia, aphelia, Tourette's syndrome - terms which amount to describing the wires of the brain getting crossed. Sacks' book was called The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Brook's show, set on an almost bare white platform, using only the odd institutional metal chair and table, showed a series of scenes illuminating the function of the brain, implicitly reflecting on the questions: "How do we think?" and "What is a man?".

There is no one working in the British theatre who explains his ideas with such clarity and lack of dogma, as Peter Brook. His The Empty Space, based on four lectures he gave in 1968, is one of only a handful of indispensable books about the theatre. Brook describes four categories of theatre: 'deadly theatre' - inert, trapped in conventions and clichés (far from always being in the commercial sector); 'rough theatre' - vulgar, eclectic, populist; immediate theatre - the theatre of 'the vital spark' (Brook's theatre); and 'holy theatre' - compulsive, communitarian, a search for secular rituals to replace spiritual vacuums.

Brook argues that for the theatre to be expressive it must be, above all, simple and unaffected: a distillation of language, of gesture, of action, of design, where meaning is the essence: "I take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for the act of theatre to be engaged."

The above has been extracted from Changing Stages (Bloomsbury paperback, £16.99) by Richard Eyre, whose new book about his ten years as artistic director of the National Theatre, National Service, will be published by Bloomsbury in October 2003. For further information or to order copies, visit the Bloomsbury website.

Peter Brook's production of Le Costume (The Suit) returns this week to London's Young Vic, where it had a sell-out run in August 2001 and now has a limited season from 25 August to 13 September 2003. On 19 September 2003, the Young Vic will host the launch of The Open Circle: Peter Brook's Theatre Environments written by Andrew Todd and Jean-Guy Lecat in collaboration with Brook. Later this year, Nottingham Playhouse will revive Brook's The Man Who.