Peter Brook’s Legacy Is All Over Theater Today | Peter Brook
NOTnever meet your heroes, the saying goes. When I first met Peter Brook in 2010, he was not so much a hero as a legend: guru, shaman, mage, maestro. He was frail – tiny too, shuffling around the theater in huge, thick-soled white shoes. But the moment he gave you his famous ice blue gaze, it was clear his mind was made of steel.
Reputation does fun things to people; especially in theatre, an art form given to the creation of myths, where the stories of famous performances you haven’t seen grow with the narrative. I’m decades too young, for example, to have seen any of Brook’s early or mid-stream works, the sprawling shows of The bird conference Where The Mahabharata. The director I met was the late minimalist, the polisher of parabolic plays that glistened like pebbles beneath the surface of a river. Often they were enigmatic, sometimes downright puzzling. But Brook’s ability to conjure up a brilliant theatrical image — collaborating since the mid-1970s with his loyal lieutenant, Marie-Hélène Estienne — was unparalleled. I remember actor William Nadylam in The Suit taking a handkerchief out of a pocket and turning it into a tablecloth, so, just like that. Then there was an evening of Beckett shorts with Marcello Magni, Khalifa Natour and Kathryn Hunter. I am able to not only picture it in my mind, but almost replay it, so piercing was its clarity.
Brook was also – and this is rarer than you might think – an intensely musical director. His cut-to-the-quick Magic Flute with piano and a cast of nine, which I saw in 2011, captured the lightness of Mozart’s writing and exuded a playful joie de vivre. Brook displayed an equally restless creativity that was entirely Mozartian, as well as the skill to go from exuberance to serious gravity in a flash. Brook also had the particular showmanship that made it seem like there was nothing naive about it. When I interviewed Estienne in 2015, she told me that her actors—usually in their 30s and 40s—find the demands of endless rehearsal exhausting, but Brook himself never did.
Battlefield (2015), based on The Mahabharata, wavered for me: sometimes thrillingly clear, sometimes gnomishly dark. The Prisoner, which came to London in 2018, was allegedly based on an encounter in Brook’s own life four decades earlier, it felt both out of time and out of place, particularly in its depiction of themes such as incestuous rape and colonialism. But for anyone to maintain a 70+ year career in acting, let alone a career that has changed direction as often as Brook’s, is amazing. Brook seemed to have clung to his youth in part through his involvement with young theater makers. As well as being a generous collaborator, he hosted a steady stream of acolytes at the Bouffes du Nord, and in his later years became a visiting former statesman at London’s Young Vic. Dog-eared copies of his book Empty Space may no longer be an essential accessory for budding filmmakers (and thank God, Brook might have said), but its influence is everywhere: in the hectic inventiveness of Complicité, the stripped-down essentialism of Cheek by Jowl, as as well as in the styles of theater makers as varied as Marianne Elliott, Robert Icke, Emma Rice and Ivo van Hove.
Show companies like 1927 or Frantic Assembly, or the frontier and cross-border experimentalism of directors like Yaël Farber, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Tim Supple, and you see Brook’s influence, often stemming from work done there more than one generation old. Its most important legacy might be in making mainstream drama properly multicultural. His projects with artists from all over the world, from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds, have their detractors, but they were truly pioneers. They helped change the face – and faces – of theater for good and infuse inward-looking British theater with a sense of continental momentum.
One of my last meetings with Brook dates back to 2015, at the Bouffes. The actors had bowed out, the audience was beginning to disperse. I was in heaven when I spotted Brook far below. He had remained in the shadows; I was told later that he was not supposed to be there that night. But he couldn’t resist dropping by to see how the show was going. I watched him being gently guided through the proscenium arch to give notes to the actors. A few sweet words of advice and he would be gone.