Death of Peter Brook, the universal theater maker

Posted Jul 3, 2022, 2:26 PMUpdated on Jul 3, 2022 at 2:29 PM

In front of the Bouffe du Nord, on this July night, a flower seller on the sly would have dropped a rose. It would be the most beautiful involuntary tribute that a passerby could have made to the great man of the theater who died on July 2, 2022 at the age of 97. In their beautiful simplicity, its weathered, ageless walls looked so much like her. This room in the north of Paris, he had invested it from the beginning of the 1970s and he continued to live there until the end even if he was no longer the manager. He had gently imposed his mark on her: the art of creating the full of emotions in an “empty space”.

Whether he was putting on Shakespeare, his great master, frescoes like “Le Mahâbhârata”, tales or Beckett, Peter Brook did not bother with sets. Four sticks were enough for him to represent a house, a stump and a few twigs to evoke a forest… The magician transformed his actors into king and queen by adorning them with a simple scarlet cloth. An increasingly insistent rocking of the body evoked a storm. And then there was this bare ground, brilliantly lit, as if animated by a telluric force. Sea or desert, street or village square… By treading it, his characters seemed to bring the world back to life.

It takes time to get to the point. Today’s theatergoers, from seniors to teenagers, are familiar with his work since he moved to Paris. But the man, the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, started doing theater very early. His first productions in London date from the early 1940s. He was not even 20 years old. If we take the sum of his creations and recreations today, there are more than 90, or about as many as his age.

Brook immediately fires all wood. Shakespeare remains his red thread, magnificently translated into French by Jean-Claude Carrière, his unwavering companion. But he also tackles Marlowe, Shaw and Beckett, then the American (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller), Russian (Chekhov, Dostoyevsky), Nordic (Ibsen) and of course French repertoire. In its prism, the moderns, with a certain taste for eclecticism: André Roussin, Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet…

parallel cinema

The director immediately opened up to other disciplines: from the end of the 1940s, he staged operas in Covent Garden. At the same time, he leads a career, humble but not negligible, as a filmmaker with a total of ten films: “Sentimental Journey” (1944), “Moderato Cantabile” (1959), “His Majesty of the Flies” (1963), “Le Mahâbharâta » (1989), « The Tragedy of Hamlet » (2002… Almost all of them are linked to his work as a man of theatre.

It was not until 1962, when he created “King Lear” at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, that Peter Brook decided to abandon the tinsel of traditional theatre, remove the sets and implement his theory. empty space. To the bare stage is added a new way of staging, based on improvisation, the constant search for the right game, a new relationship with the public. Brook aims for a total theatre, inspired by Antonin Arthaud’s theater of cruelty. But his “revolution” does not stop there. The Briton decides to extend his playing field. Gradually, he imposes himself as the herald of a “world theatre”. This involves travel (Iran, Africa, North America) and of course encounters.

In 1971, when he moved to Paris, he created the International Center for Theater Research, open to actors from all over the world. Like Ariane Mnouchkine, he uses mixed casts, where alongside French or British like Maurice Bénichou or Kathryn Hunter… there are Indians or Africans. Among them, Bakary Sangaré, a former student of the Bamako Arts Institute, noticed in “Le Mahâbhârata” then in “La Tempête”, will join the Comédie-Française in 2002. From the house of Brook to the house of Molière, he only one step…

Storyteller director

The more Brook’s shows are purified, the more the osmosis between Western tradition and the cultures of the rest of the world deepens. Brook is a theater maker without borders, all at the same time director, storyteller, griot. The marvelous is nestled in the details of a small gesture, a look… and in these silences charged with a thousand meanings. The walkman master can plunge us into the tragedy of Carmen, laid bare, shortened and carried by the sole notes of a piano, then the next time propel us into the townships of South Africa. The same humanity floods the stage. And overwhelms the audience. An artist of the unspeakable and the invisible, Brook had no difficulty breaking down this fourth wall that separates the spectator from the actor.

Since the 2010s, when the duo formed by Olivier Mantei and Olivier Poubelle had taken over the helm of the Bouffes du Nord, Peter Brook, helped by his accomplice Marie-Hélène Estienne, had devoted himself to more modest or shorter projects, n not hesitating to ” remake “ some of his creations (like “Fragments” by Beckett) or to add a brief chapter to the Mahâbhârata”. He was there almost every year. Lately, his shows have looked more and more like acting lessons in the form of a luminous testament. His last creation on the bill at Les Bouffes last April was “The Tempest Project”. Peter Brook once again seized the flamboyant work of the great Will to celebrate its most beautiful flame, that of freedom.

Peter Brook



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