Peter Brook, visionary director known for his daring and visually striking stage productions – obituary

·9 min read
Peter Brook - AFP
Peter Brook - AFP

Peter Brook, who has died aged 97, was a theatre, opera and film director of genius; a restless, energetic man, he did more than anyone to raise the artistic status of the theatre director in the postwar era.

Brook was a leading interpreter of Shakespeare, and his work for the Royal Shakespeare Company brought international renown to the British theatre in the 1960s. His beautifully written 1968 book about theatre, The Empty Space, is now a modern classic.

Brook's classic book about stagecraft
Brook's classic book about stagecraft

Brook’s intellectually daring and visually striking productions helped to define the avant-garde stage in the 20th century. Especially memorable were Titus Andronicus (1955), with Laurence Olivier, and King Lear (1962), with Paul Scofield.

Equally significant was his powerful production of Marat/Sade (1964), a story set in a French asylum in Napoleonic times, and his hippie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) which embodied the spirit of 1960s liberation. Later, his retelling of the Indian myth, The Mahabharata (1985) was a nine-hour epic. Films such as Lord of the Flies (1963) proved his versatility in that medium.

James Aubrey and Hugh Edwards in Peter Brook's film of Lord of the Flies - Alamy
James Aubrey and Hugh Edwards in Peter Brook's film of Lord of the Flies - Alamy

Brook pioneered a new approach to theatre, banishing from the stage everything that is superfluous, creating simple yet extremely powerful stage images. In Titus Andronicus, there was no fake blood: when limbs were mutilated, he used trailing red ribbons instead. As well as directing this production, he designed the costumes and scenery, and created a musique concrète soundtrack.

For Brook, everything depended on rehearsals. His approach demanded that his actors explored the subject of the plays with total commitment. Often he would sit for hours without saying a word, watching the cast do improvisatory exercises designed to create their characters. His innovations included inviting children into rehearsal, or rehearsing at a youth club, to learn from how unschooled spectators reacted to the performance.

During rehearsals for Seneca’s Oedipus (1968) Brook made his cast go through days of primal screaming, imitating various animals — anything except work on the text. One day he asked the actors to improvise around the most terrifying experience they could imagine. When it came to John Gielgud’s turn, he did nothing. Eventually, Brook asked whether he could not think of anything that terrified him. “Actually, Peter, there is,” replied the actor. “We open in two weeks.”

Once, Brook wanted to see if Glenda Jackson could be induced to have a breakdown. For hours on end, he instructed the other actors to chase her around the room, pretending to be hounds or concentration-camp guards. It did not work: in the end the actress said to him: “Let’s just have a cup of tea instead.” On another occasion, the cast persuaded Brook to put a paper bag over his head, then sneaked out and left him sitting alone.

This style of intensive, time-consuming rehearsal cost money, and when British theatre failed to give him the resources to experiment he moved in 1970 to Paris, where he was given an extremely well subsidised company, a base from which he launched a series of experiments with the aim of exploring the human essence of the theatrical experience.

Peter Brook directing a play in 2004 - Roland Weihrauch / Avalon
Peter Brook directing a play in 2004 - Roland Weihrauch / Avalon

Peter Brook was born on March 21 1925 to Russian parents. His father was a Latvian-born revolutionary who was exiled from Tsarist Russia, and whose family name was Bryk. Rechristened by a passport official when he arrived at Dover in 1914, Brook senior worked as a scientist, helping to invent field telephones in the First World War while his wife, also a scientist, developed antidotes to poison gas. Later, they set up a pharmaceutical company whose most famous product was Brooklax, a laxative.

Young Peter, who had an older brother who became a psychiatrist, went to various schools, including Westminster and Gresham’s. Before going up to Oxford in 1942 he staged Dr Faustus at the tiny Torch theatre in Knightsbridge, and while still a student he filmed Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey.

After a season at the Birmingham Rep in 1945, he went to Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of 21 to direct actors even younger than himself.

His early style was richly visual, with a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1946) that was indebted to the paintings of Watteau. He introduced French avant-garde dramatists such as Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre to English audiences, and was soon working with Britain’s finest players: Measure for Measure with John Gielgud, Ring Round the Moon with Paul Scofield, The Dark is Light Enough with Edith Evans.

Nor was he just a classical director. He staged The Little Hut, a commercial farce with Robert Morley, and the musical comedy Irma La Douce with equal success.

From the mid-1950s to the late-1960s Brook was the enfant terrible of British theatre, developing an iconoclastic approach which aimed to provoke. Inspired by the 1930s visionary Antonin Artaud’s ideas of ecstatic theatre, he investigated the concept of the Frenchman's “Theatre of Cruelty” for the recently formed RSC in 1964.

A scene from Brook's film version of Marat/Sade with Ian Richardson and Susan Williams - Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
A scene from Brook's film version of Marat/Sade with Ian Richardson and Susan Williams - Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

For this season, his staging of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (with Patrick Magee and Glenda Jackson) was powerfully unsettling, as can be seen in his 1967 film version of the play, and led to the “Dirty Plays” controversy when Emile Littler, an RSC governor, denounced the show.

In 1966 Brook’s US was a protest against the American War in Vietnam. The play asked audiences to imagine the terror of napalmed in their own gardens, and its most striking image was a butterfly being burnt on stage.

In 1968, his Oedipus for the National Theatre climaxed with a festive finale featuring an erect phallus. Such shocking productions gave him an international reputation.

Paul Scofield as King Lear in Peter Brook's production - mirrorpix
Paul Scofield as King Lear in Peter Brook's production - mirrorpix

Brook’s reinterpretations of Shakespeare changed perceptions of the Bard. They included King Lear (1962), with its spare Beckettian atmosphere and moral ambiguity: Scofield’s Lear was as much to blame as his daughters.

In 1970 came his most vivid experiment: for the RSC, he directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He substituted a white box for the usual forest setting, and, inspired by Chinese circus, made the day-glo-clad actors use a trapeze and spin plates on sticks.

When he directed Hamlet in Paris (2000), with Adrian Lester, he reduced the play to its essentials, cutting roles and scenes and changing the order of the soliloquies.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Brook's production of Titus Andronicus - KEYSTONE Pictures USA / eyevine
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Brook's production of Titus Andronicus - KEYSTONE Pictures USA / eyevine

By 1970 Brook was the most exciting director in Britain, but was frustrated by the lack of funding for his experiments. Having already worked in Paris, where he had staged Jean Genet’s The Balcony in 1960, he accepted an invitation (facilitated by the director Jean-Louis Barrault) to set up an International Center of Theatre Research.

At the dilapidated Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, an old music hall near the Gare du Nord, he was given unlimited rehearsal time with no need to make a profit (his first shows were free for audiences). His project was now to ask fundamental questions about the nature of theatre.

In order to find answers, Brook began a series of peregrinations. In 1971 he staged Orghast, using a new language based on sound created by Ted Hughes, at the ruins of Persepolis in Iran during the Shiraz Festival.

In 1972 and 1973 his group travelled across the Sahara and elsewhere in Africa with  Conference of the Birds, a story derived from an ancient Persian poem, performing spontaneous mime in villages, part of an attempt to discover a theatre that did not depend on shared language.

Back in Paris, he staged The Ik (1975), about a Ugandan border tribe, followed by many productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov.

Especially well researched was his version of the Sanskrit epic The Manhabharata (1985), which was first performed from dawn to dusk in a quarry on the banks of the Rhone. He toured an English version in 1987.

Blue-eyed and with a bright smile and disarming chuckle, Brook was a born teacher, and, as well as The Empty Space, wrote several books, including The Shifting Point (1988) and his autobiography, Threads of Time (1998).

His interest in mysticism gave him the air of a guru, whose gnomic utterances — “A stage space has two rules: (1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen” — pervade his written work.

At the Avignon rehearsals of Conference of the Birds, he sat with actors on the candlelit floor of a cave, quietly discussing the work. He was fascinated by the challenges of staging drama in a riverside quarry, on the bare floor of a canteen or in the dusty courtyard of a monk’s retreat.

Peter Brook's memoir
Peter Brook's memoir

Some British playgoers regretted the fact that although his Paris-based company toured the world, it scarcely ever visited Britain. Brook used to say that it was because no one in Britain would invite — that is, pay for — such a visit. But he did occasionally work in his native country. He returned to the RSC in 1978 to direct Alan Howard and Glenda Jackson in Antony and Cleopatra. It was not a success.

In later life Brook focused on explorations of the inner space of the mind, and on multicultural projects. In The Man Who… (1996), he investigated acute mental illness, based on the case studies of Oliver Sacks, psychiatrist and author of the bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Peter Brook at the 69th Venice Film Festival in 2012 - GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images
Peter Brook at the 69th Venice Film Festival in 2012 - GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

In Je Suis un Phénomène (1998) and The Valley of Astonishment (2014) he looked at synaesthesia, a condition in which one sense is stimulated by another. Multicultural projects include two South African dramas: The Suit by Can Themba and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead by Athol Fugard.

Throughout his career Brook kept turning to the cinema. The Beggar’s Opera in 1953 with Laurence Olivier, and Lord of the Flies (a 1963 adaptation of William Golding’s post-apocalyptic novel) were perhaps the best, although he often filmed his own stage productions, most memorably Marat/Sade.

Brook also directed opera, at Covent Garden in 1949-50, notably a scandalous Salome, with Salvador Dali designs, and later in 1981 a distilled version of Carmen. He wrote two television plays, The Birthday Present and Box for One (both 1955).

Brook won countless theatre prizes in Europe and America, and was appointed CBE in 1965 and Companion of Honour in 1998. In France he received the Légion d’honneur in 1995 and became Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur in 2013. In 1951 he married the actress Natasha Parry. She died in 2015 and he is survived by their son and daughter.

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

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