Pioneering British theater director Peter Brook, whose enormous influence reached the world, has died at the age of 97. His death was confirmed on Saturday by his assistant, Nina Soufy.
Brook redefined the way we think about theater with his productions at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company; in the Bouffes du Nord, the dilapidated Parisian music hall where he formed his base for more than 30 years; in African villages, where his actors improvised performances; and on the stages visited both grandly and modestly by his globetrotting ensemble.
Many of his productions have been praised for removing the superfluous from theater and reducing drama to its essence, presented with a clear view and an elegant touch. Brook’s signature 1970 RSC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, influenced by both a Jerome Robbins ballet and Peking Circus, was performed in a white cube of a set and boasted trapezes, stilts and a forest of steel wire. In other revealing Shakespeare productions, he directed John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry, to whom Brook was married. His productions were known for their diversity, with Brook pioneering what he called “colorful” as opposed to “colorblind” casting.
He also directed musicals, staged the anti-Vietnamese war protest piece VS, co-created an experimental version of the Promethean myth with Ted Hughes, and staged a celebrated nine-hour version of the Mahabharata in a French quarry in 1985. He returned to the Sanskrit epic with his 2016 production Battlefield, staged with his regular collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne.
One of the theater’s most visionary and influential thinkers, he wrote several publications, including The Empty Space (1968), the opening of which outlined his vision: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks through this empty space while someone else is looking at him, and that’s all it takes for a theatrical act.”
Kenneth Tynan said Brooks was work for the “theatrical gourmands” because he “cooks with cream, blood, and spices.” Brook also worked in films, including a 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and in opera, directing radically stripped-down productions of Carmen and The Magic Flute.
Born in London on March 21, 1925, he single-handedly played a four-hour version of Hamlet for his parents at the age of seven. After Magdalen College, Oxford, he soon joined the Royal Opera House, directing Richard Strauss’ opera Salome with designs by Salvador Dalí. He directed Olivier as Titus Andronicus in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1955 and when Peter Hall became Artistic Director of the RSC in 1958, he asked Brook to assist him there. Brooks RSC productions include a 1962 performance of King Lear – the play he considered “the ultimate achievement of world theater” – starring Paul Scofield.
Several of his shows received Broadway transfers, including the avant-garde Marat/Sade, which won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Play. The concept for the show was for the Marquis de Sade to stage a drama about the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat played by the inmates of an asylum.
In 1970 Brook moved to Paris, where he founded his International Center for Theater Research. The company visited Africa where its actors gave performances that “used nothing that matched the theater of the time – we wanted to play for an audience that was not conditioned by anything. We would not, even experimentally, do a play with a text or a theme or a name.”
In 1974 he transformed a neglected music hall behind the Gare du Nord station into an unmissable destination for theater lovers: the Bouffes du Nord. The dilapidated building had undergone only minimal renovation, so the walls remained as scorched as when Brook found them. He opened the theater with a production of Timon van Athene and the applause brought pieces of the ceiling down.
The Man Who, which premiered in Paris in 1993, was inspired by neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which revisited the ailments of Sacks’ patients. Brook’s own neurological research led to his piece The Valley of Astonishment, about synesthesia, co-created with Estienne and performed at the Young Vic in London with Kathryn Hunter in the cast.
Brook directed Scofield and Lester as Hamlet for both screen and stage, and his Mahabharata also became an epic TV series. In 1965 he became a CBE and in 1998 he became a Companion of Honor. His production The Prisoner was shown in Paris and in 2018 at the Edinburgh festival and the National Theater in London. This spring, he returned to work on his play Tempest Project, adapted and directed with Estienne.
In a 2017 interview with Michael Billington, Brook spoke of the importance of “swimming against the tide and achieving what we can do in our chosen field. Fate dictated mine was that of theater and within that I have the responsibility.” to be as positive and creative as possible. Giving in to despair is the ultimate way out.”
Brook married actor Natasha Parry in 1951 and they had two children, Irina and Simon, who both became theater directors. Parry passed away in 2015.