Renowned Paris-based dramatist Peter Brook dies aged 97

·3 min read
AFP - BERTRAND GUAY

British-born, Paris resident for more than 50 years, dramatist Peter Brook died on Saturday, aged 97, according to the director’s entourage, who was cited by Le Monde.

“Peter Brook gave us the most beautiful silences in the theatre, but this last silence is infinitely sad,” tweeted Rima Abdul Malak, France's culture minister.

Considered one of the most influential theatre directors of the 20th century, Brook’s work was showcased at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris where he was based.

“With him, the stage was stripped back to its most vivid intensity. He bequeathed so much to us,” added Abdul Malak.

The Mahabharata”, a nine-hour version of the Hindu epic, originally produced in 1985, is considered his greatest work.

Early brilliance

Brook was born in London on 21 March,1925, to a family of Jewish scientists who had emigrated from Latvia.

He began directing at age 17, and was considered gifted in the theatrical arts from the very start of his career, becoming an acclaimed director in London’s West End by his mid-20s, directing hits on Broadway before he turned 30.

He later became known for his experimental theatre, after he “exhausted the possibilities of conventional theatre”.

Brook’s work as a director of “Marat/Sade” in 1964 garnered a Tony award.

His work was not honed on solely directing theatre, however.

“Lord of the Flies” (1963), his first movie, based on the William Golding novel about schoolboys marooned on an island who turn on each other, became an instant classic.

He also wrote the groundbreaking “The Empty Space” in 1967, considered one of theatre’s most influential texts.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” he wrote.

“A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre...”

Paris days

Moving to Paris permanently in 1971, Brook set up the International Centre for Theatre Research at the Bouffes du Nord, an old music hall.

He became interested in working with actors from different cultures, in different cultures.

In 1972, he brought a group of actors, including British actress Helen Mirren and Japanese actor Yoshi Oida on a 13,600-kilometre voyage across the African continent to test his ideas in theatre.

In “Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa”, drama critic John Heilpern tells of their journey in a book that became a bestseller.

“Every day they would lay out a carpet in a remote village and would improvise a show using shoes or a box,” said Heilpern, speaking to the BBC.

“When someone entered the carpet the show began. There was no script or no shared language.”

However, the trip had its downsides; most of the company caught dysentery or other tropical diseases, including actor Mirren, who left soon afterwards.

Returning to Paris, Brook returned to his experimental theatre at the Bouffes du Nord, occasionally carrying out touring productions globally.

In 1993, he came out with the hit, “L’Homme Qui”, based on Oliver Sacks’ bestseller about neurological dysfunction, “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”.

He was a hit back in the UK in 1997, directing Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days”. His wife, Natasha Parry, an actress, played in the lead.

He was touted as “the best director London does not have”.

Accolades later in life, too

He remained at the Bouffes du Nord, continuing to direct, but left its helm when he turned 85 in 2010.

One of his most remarkable pieces came later in life, when he wrote and staged “The Prisoner”, aged 92, based on his own spiritual journey to Afghanistan in 1978.

He had traveled just before the Soviet invasion to shoot the movie, “Meetings with Remarkable Men”.

It was an adaption of a book by George Gurdjieff, a mystical philosopher whose sacred dances Brook performed daily for years.

In 2015, his wife, Parry, died, which had a major impact in his life.

“One tries to bargain with fate and say, just bring her back for 30 seconds,” he said.

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