Peter Brook: Visionary theatre director who brought plays to life

Peter Brook directing ‘Ta Main Dans La Mienne’ in 2005  (Shutterstock)
Peter Brook directing ‘Ta Main Dans La Mienne’ in 2005 (Shutterstock)

The writer Jean-Claude Carriere, a regular collaborator with Peter Brook, said of the director: “Peter has a very strong presence, but what strikes me is his lightness.” Others also have corrected a received image, particularly of the later Brook, as some austere Gurdjieff-inspired autocrat (“Gurus take themselves too seriously” was Brook’s perspective).

For some more empirical Anglo-Saxon theatre critics, often uneasy outside text-based theatre, Brook’s explorations (his recherche theatrale at Paris’s Bouffes du Nord theatre, the base for most of his work since 1970) were quasi-mystical, even humourlessly narcissistic.

Both theatre-explorer and showman, Brook, who has died aged 97, traced an extraordinary professional arc from the starry, genteel West End of post-war austerity with audiences avid for escapism to his later years of experiment in Paris.

His earlier career covered such boulevard frivols as Nancy Mitford’s version of Andre Roussin’s The Little Hut (1950), the hit musical Irma la Douce (1959 and 1960) and House of Flowers (1954), designed by Cecil Beaton with a Harold Arlen score, based on Truman Capote’s orchidaceous novella.

The latter became a classic saga of a musical “in trouble on the road” with hirings, firings and tantrums at a polar extreme from Brook’s later world. It brought the wunderkind up against the realpolitik of Broadway when he faced the show’s redoubtable star, Pearl Bailey, playing a Caribbean brothel owner, telling her: “We have to create a new Pearl Bailey”, to which her reply clarified who would be “the muscle” on the production: “Honey, I’m not through with the old one yet.”

His youthful precocity included smaller-scale productions, often introducing new European work, such as his startling appraisal of Sartre’s Huis Clos (Arts, 1946) with Alec Guinness quiveringly on the mental rack as Garcin.

Films also occupied him from boyhood and while still an undergraduate he set up a shoestring version of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1943), unabashedly owning his debt to the style of Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un Tricheur. This was alongside reappraisals in what were then the few theatres of the London “fringe”, such as Doctor Faustus (Torch, 1944) and Cocteau’s La Machine Infernale (Chanticleer, 1945).

That early work intrigued such eminences gris as Hugh Beaumont of the powerful HM Tennent management and Sir Barry Jackson, both cultivated and discreetly gay (Brook, an experimenter in everything, then was living with the writer Gavin Lambert). To “Binkie” Beaumont, Brook was always “Brooklet” and he and Jackson effectively established their discovery as the most in-demand director of his era.

For Jackson he directed several Birmingham productions including King John and Man and Superman (1945), collaborating for the first time with a key figure in his career, the young Paul Scofield. Their success encouraged Jackson when he took over Stratford’s Memorial Theatre to invite Brook (“the youngest earthquake I’ve known”) and Scofield to join him. In a famously ravishing Watteau-inspired Love’s Labour’s Lost (1946) with Scofield an elegiac Don Armado resembling a sad-eyed springer spaniel, Brook galvanised an organisation which had atrophied since the pre-war days when the emigre director Komisarjevsky had electrified beside the Avon.

It was Brook’s quest to bring modernism finally into 20th-century theatre (AFP/Getty)
It was Brook’s quest to bring modernism finally into 20th-century theatre (AFP/Getty)

However after his version of Romeo and Juliet (1947) was loathed by purists, his career became largely an exploration of how to restore “Holy Theatre” to what had become – certainly in the England of his early working lifetime – “Deadly Theatre”, near-fossilised by decorum, with Coward and Rattigan its leading dramatists and design led by the painterly style of Beaton or Oliver Messel, all much treasured by HM Tennent.

But then the impulses to challenge were in Brook’s temperament by birth. Born in Turnham Green to Russian-Jewish parents – his father, a successful electrical engineer, was from a liberal Dvinsk family and had joined the Mensheviks as a youth – his background was cultured, with constant paternal encouragement. Already a child fascinated by theatre, he began to explore his first camera and the world of film.

Both Westminster School and Gresham’s in Norfolk he found uncongenial, stamped by Anglo-Saxon repression (a reaction which surely informed his 1961 screen version of William Golding’s allegory of stranded schoolboys in Lord of the Flies). The response to Oxford was similar, although undergraduate theatre flourished when he arrived at Magdalen in 1942. When he fell foul of his college’s rules (he allowed a friend to stay after lock-up) Magdalen moved to send him down; the stout defence from his father in an episode out of Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy saved him but Oxford’s display of English institutional prejudice at its most subtly lethal also fed his constant urge to question.

He wrote copiously even then – throughout his career Brook held a kind of dialogue with himself in countless articles (notably his contributions to the pioneering 1960s Encore magazine) – covering ballet regularly for The Observer. His Russian legacy, fused with his bias towards the modern, gave his writing an unusual zest and strongly influenced his developing sensibility.

It is striking how Brook, in his quest to bring modernism finally into 20th-century theatre, could adapt to designers of diverse backgrounds. Wakhevitch designed his innovative Boris Godunov (1948) with a dazzling climax of seemingly endlessly receding perspective, at Covent Garden, where another of the art world’s mandarins, David Webster, took the young Brook on board. Floral Street’s decidedly ancien regime staff did not share their boss’s feelings for the trailblazer and were more than a little responsible for his brief career as the house’s director of productions.

Brook gives instructions to his actors during a 1991 rehearsal of ‘The Tempest’ (AFP/Getty)
Brook gives instructions to his actors during a 1991 rehearsal of ‘The Tempest’ (AFP/Getty)

For Salome (1949) Brook chose Salvador Dali to create a hallucinatory landscape of opiate dreams which, coupled with Welitsch’s boldly erotic heroine, upset established staff (the music director, a staid Karl Rankl, refused to share the traditional curtain-call with the director) and most critics.

In the West End for Tennents, Brook worked harmoniously with Messel on Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon (Aldwych, 1949) set in a frosted winter garden and on The Little Hut against Messel’s desert island, an exotic paradise of giant fruits and flowers. Equally successfully, Brook turned to Punch cartoonist Roland Emmett for an enchantingly idealised celebration of rural eccentricity during the Napoleonic Wars in John Whiting’s Penny for a Song (Haymarket, 1951).

By marked contrast, Brook had recently himself designed (also lighting and composing a musique concrete score) when he returned to Stratford for Measure for Measure (1950). On a simple permanent set, with sharply angled lighting, this became in Brook’s hands a psychological thriller, marking a breakthrough performance by Barbara Jefford as Isabella (her epic pause in the climactic confrontation passed into theatrical legend) and a revelatory one from Gielgud.

Gielgud continued under Brook to flex new muscles as a near-psychotic Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (Phoenix, 1951) and then in a rare revival of Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1953) opposite Scofield.

Everything for Brook then seemed in constant flux. In 1951 he married actor Natasha Parry, who would share a lifetime of theatrical adventure. Professionally he continued to provoke and stimulate. His 1952 film of The Beggar’s Opera, produced by the unlikely pairing of Herbert Wilcox (better known for his wife Anna Neagle’s screen romances) and its star Laurence Olivier (too bandbox-trim as Macheath), had a script from Denis Cannan, a regular collaborator. The best aspect of a patchy movie is Wakhevitch’s chiaroscuro 18th-century London, although Wilcox’s insistence on colour robbed it of the Hogarthian monochrome of Brook’s original concept.

‘Peter has a very strong presence, but what strikes me is his lightness,’ said Jean-Claude Carriere (Getty)
‘Peter has a very strong presence, but what strikes me is his lightness,’ said Jean-Claude Carriere (Getty)

For Beaumont, he helmed a 1955 Phoenix Theatre season featuring Scofield, a comparatively tepid venture. The revival of TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion was at best dutiful and only Scofield’s ineffably affecting Whisky Priest saved Cannan’s pedestrian version of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. The surprising disappointment was a bland and scrappy Hamlet although it had improved by the time it toured to a just-thawing Moscow.

Sensing a need to spread his wings following less than satisfying work, Brook expanded his love affair with French culture and Paris – often more simpatico to the emigre artist than London – on Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Theatre Antoine, 1956) with a mesmerising Jeanne Moreau and Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge (1958).

With the help of his French agent, Micheline Rozan, Brook set up a long-anticipated premiere of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (Theatre du Gymnasse, 1960) with the great Marie Bell as Madam of the play’s brothel, designed by Brook as a maze of picture frames evoking Genet’s house of illusions. He moved on from the controversy around this to film Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile (1960), a low-key but utterly absorbing account of a small-town love affair with Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo at their best under Brook’s unflinching lens.

In France, Brook had read the script of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s corrosive study of post-war German morality in The Visit. He persuaded Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Broadway’s reigning duo, to star in what would be their valedictory appearances and his last production for Beaumont. It was a meticulously taut production, full of his bravura flair for group episodes, although the key scene with two former lovers meeting in old age in a forest was mounted on a virtually empty stage.

A scene from Brook’s ‘Lord Of The Flies’ (1963) (Shutterstock)
A scene from Brook’s ‘Lord Of The Flies’ (1963) (Shutterstock)

The 1960s saw some of Brook’s finest work. Peter Hall asked him to be a part of what he intended as a “collegiate” RSC at the outset and for the new company he staged King Lear (1962), Durrenmatt’s bleak nuclear allegory The Physicists (1963) and Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (1964). The decade peaked with US (1966), a collaborative exploration of Vietnam issues involving the company and the international success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970).

Arguably as influential was his supervision of the RSC’s experimental Theatre of Cruelty 1964 season, leading to a version of Genet’s The Screens at the Donmar Warehouse, heavily influenced by Brook’s mining of Antonin Artaud’s Le Theatre et son Double and feeding much subsequent work.

That tumultuous Brookian decade saw some of the British stage’s iconic designs and mightiest performances. For Oedipus (1968), Brook designed a revolving silver box for plague-bound Thebes. It framed the haunting presence of Oedipus from Gielgud who, largely under Brook’s guidance since 1950, had turned himself into a supremely modern actor. Brook’s rewarding design collaboration with Sally Jacobs – for Marat/Sade her vast tiled Charenton asylum chamber inevitably recalled the concentration camps – was always vital, not least in her white-box “empty space” for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What might have been an antiseptic laboratory was filled with images which remain impaled on the memory, startlingly beautiful in Titania’s bower created by an enormous red feather floating down from the flies.

Similarly arresting was the Beckettian landscape of the RSC King Lear, a monochrome world of steel and savagery before Lear’s journey through madness to reconciliation. The storm scenes, suggested by three giant metal sheets, succeeded where most productions stumble, with a grizzled Scofield soaring into the empyrean of real tragedy, Lear’s mind unravelling.

Ljuba Welitsch plays the lead in Brook’s ‘Salome’ at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Getty)
Ljuba Welitsch plays the lead in Brook’s ‘Salome’ at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Getty)

It puzzled many then, but in retrospect it seems natural that Brook in 1970 should move to Paris, basing virtually all future work around a group of actors not sharing a language, work which confirmed him as a pioneer and homme du theatre in the line of Craig, Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Brecht and Grotowski.

With Micheline Rozan as manager, the International Centre for Theatre Research was established, its root quest being to explore the nature of theatre itself. The group’s travels took them around the world, work which culminated in Ted Hughes’s invented language for the mythic Orghast (1971), drawing on legends of Manichean creation and Persian history, mounted first at the Shiraz Persepolis Festival.

For some critics, despite the productions’ visual powers (Brook’s use of fire was especially striking) this work could suggest an emperor’s new clothes syndrome, the magpie pickings of a travelling shaman/showman. Particularly attacked was The Ik (1975), first seen in the gloriously weathered Bouffes du Nord, Brook’s final empty space, based on ethnologist Colin Turnbull’s account of a period spent with a Ugandan tribe. Critics accused it of intellectual slumming, neo-Wolfean “Radical Chic” with bourgeois actors recreating ancient ethnic rituals.

Such charges tend to lose their sting set against the variety of and achievement in much of Brook’s Paris-based work. A slimmed-down Timon of Athens (1974), evoking a sleek corporate world, found the bitter core of an elusive play while his lambent study of The Cherry Orchard (1981) used no real set but just some rich carpets against the peeling Bouffes walls and had a luminous Ranevskya from Natasha Parry. Also fused with the same muscular tension was a final Hamlet (2000) with Adrian Lester in a version playing a swift, uninterrupted two and a half hours.

Brook steered an absorbing version, L’Homme Qui (1992), of Oliver Sacks’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the initial trials of which illustrate his basic pragmatism. Similarly affecting was a later two-hander for his wife and Michel Piccoli as they inhabited Chekhov and Olga Knipper through their letters in Ta Main dans la Mienne (2003). His work remained remarkable; in 2005 he directed Tierno Bokar, based on the life of the Malian sufi, and in 2011 a beguiling take on Mozart in A Magic Flute.

His unusually long career was marked by a combination of humility and unquenchable curiosity. Brook never regarded himself as any kind of autocrat. Jean-Claude Carriere understood this when he said: “A journalist asked Peter, ‘What are the supreme qualities needed to be a director, or to express things in general?’ And he answered, ‘To be an experienced child – un enfant experimente’”.

Peter Brook, theatre director, born 21 March 1925, died 2 July 2022