Ascetic, showman, saint - and the Yoda of the theatre world

Peter Brook
December 23, 2005

Peter Brook is, without a doubt, one of the world's greatest theatre directors. For the past 60 years, his extraordinary career has served as a glittering example of what a life in the theatre can be. Like an impish magician, he has repeatedly transformed the medium, surprising again and again with a tap of his theatrical wand. And today, at the age of 80, Brook remains as influential as ever, inspiring a whole new generation of theatre-makers.

It is little wonder, then, that Brook is often described as a guru, a term he claims to loathe. Not that he does much to contradict the epithet. On the cover of this biography, Brook stares impassively out at us, in much the same way as he did on the cover of his own, somewhat elliptical, memoir back in 1998. Moreover, his self-imposed exile in Paris, where he has sought to distil the very essence of theatre, has succeeded only in wrapping him in even more mystery. He may not like it, but Brook tends to come across as the Yoda of the theatre world, a quasi-religious sage hovering, all-knowing, in the wings.

In this impressive and thoughtful biography, Michael Kustow attempts to illuminate the man behind the veil of mystery. He believes the key to unlocking his subject is that Brook has always felt uncomfortable within British society and culture. This is the archetypal story of artist as outsider. As a precocious child and adolescent (he read War and Peace at the age of nine), Brook's Jewish and Russian ancestry set him apart from the class-bound Britain of the 1930s and 1940s. Kustow recounts, in telling detail, the treatment Brook experienced at Oxford University, whence he was almost sent down for committing the crime of being young, creative and impetuous. Correspondence from college authorities to Brook's father, who interceded on his son's behalf, is shocking in its dismissive and superior tone. The racism and snobbery are barely concealed.

Then, when his career took off in meteoric fashion after the war, Brook never quite fitted in. He might have posed for Vogue and been one of West End impresario Binkie Beaumont's favoured directors (Binkie referred to him as "Brooklet"), but Brook was far too eclectic a talent to be confined to what Peter Hall has called the "perfumed" theatre of the postwar West End. Brook may have seduced the mainstream with his dazzling showmanship, but he was just as happy staging his brutally uncompromising production of Titus Andronicus , and stirring it up at Covent Garden by inviting Salvador Dal! to design Surrealist backdrops for Strauss's Salome .

When he was asked to join Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s, Brook agreed, but only on the condition that he would be granted the money, space and personnel with which to experiment. In the preceding decade, Brook had mastered a wide range of theatrical forms. Now it was time to explore the medium in a far more fundamental fashion. So began the journey of theatrical discovery that Brook is still pursuing 40 years later.

The productions that emerged, inspired initially by Antonin Artaud's theory of the Theatre of Cruelty, remain some of the most celebrated of the 20th century. The visceral Marat/Sade , the controversial US and the revolutionary white-box A Midsummer Night's Dream all revealed Brook as a director who was stretching theatre to its limits while simultaneously revelling in his formidable powers as a showman.

Then, at the height of his powers and success, Brook abruptly turned his back on Britain and went to live and work in Paris, where he has remained ever since, at arm's length from his homeland. In Paris, Brook gathered an international company of actors and spent three years travelling the world with them, attempting to develop a universal theatrical language, a form of communication that would cut through the boundaries imposed by individual cultures. Brook then took the lessons learnt from these travels and applied them to a series of productions, such as The Mahabharata , that saw theatre stripped to its essence, theatre in which every gesture and every word counted, theatre in which anything unnecessary had been burnt away.

This, of course, has been Brook's most important legacy; an asceticism that has quietly revolutionised modern theatre. In the process, Brook and his work have taken on an almost mythical quality. Kustow is no doubt right to portray Brook as an outsider, but he refuses to delve very deeply into his subject's private life. The result is that Brook retains much of his mystery, a slightly unknowable saint of world theatre. He may well resent it, but it looks as though Brook will be stuck with the guru tag for some time to come.

Robin Dashwood is a television drama and documentary director at the BBC.

Peter Brook: A Biography

Author - Michael Kustow
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 334
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7475 7646 7

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