Peter Brook recalled by Richard Eyre

I was 19 when I saw Peter Brook’s production of King Lear in 1962 and I had the impression that Berlioz saw Hamlet: “The flash of this discovery suddenly revealed to me the whole paradise of art. I saw, I understood, I felt that I was alive and that I had to get up and walk. The production was on an almost bare stage, stripped of what Brook described as the “hardware store(hardware) of the stage production that had so fascinated him as an absurdly young theater and opera director. The play revealed itself in its elemental force, a world without moral absolutes in a permanent state of fallibility.

Peter was a universally revered director, admired as much for his genius as for his ability to reinvent himself. When I started directing I wrote to him and to my amazement he invited me to come to his house where, although I was utterly and obviously ignorant and flabbergasted, he spoke with natural charm and great clarity, without ever putting myself down: how pieces were revealed during rehearsals, not drawn out in advance; how rehearsals should be a journey; how there was no definitive production; of magic, of instinct, of staging. He was by turns serious, mischievous and passionate.

Many years later, he became a friend, always giving me imperishable advice: “Nothing is accomplished in the theater that is not a matter of practice rather than theory”; “Never have a press party, it freezes the work”; “Directing is getting people up and down on stage, like getting the orchestra on time. His timing was always perfect: at 20, he was directing Paul Scofield in Hamlet in Birmingham, a year later The labor of love is lost in Stratford, then at the Royal Opera House where he invited Salvador Dalí to conceive a production of Salome. Unfortunately, it was never staged: the Thames had to be diverted so that an ocean liner could pierce the back wall of the Covent Garden stage.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Peter Brook in Stratford-upon-Avon, 1970. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

I had lived outside London since the mid-1960s, so I missed Peter’s years of investigation – using improvisation, sounds and rhythms rather than words, acting with nonsensical lyrics – which for me, a typically English empiricist, seemed impenetrable. But in 1970, when I saw his production of A Dream of a summer night, it became clear that his experiments with the theatricality of theater had revealed a world of wit and invention. The set was a large white box with two doors and a balcony above it with ladders leading up to it and the fairies swinging on trapezes, handling the action like not-so-hardworking stagehands. There were no preconceived ideas about the theater or the supernatural. He embodied Peter’s maxim that “theatre becomes a deadly industry if a performer isn’t there to perform.”

Then, at the age of 45, he retired from British theatre. My regret at his departure was mixed with both admiration and envy: he had escaped the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, the insular and terrestrial British theater and the creeping infection of self-doubt. He makes a disused music hall in Paris his theatrical home and his work becomes an explicit search for meaning, a spiritual quest.

He embarked with a group of 15 actors on a succession of investigations into the nature of theater from the top of a mountain in Persia to the villages of West Africa and the fruit farms of California. He “explored life beyond the clichés”. This led to his masterpiece, Theirahabharata, a trilogy adapted from the longest narrative poem in the world, at the heart of Hindu culture. With an audience that had traveled like pilgrims from all over the country, I saw the production in a tram shed in Glasgow – a nine-hour story of a society on the brink of collapse. It ended at sunrise with a vision of peace, harmony and forgiveness.

The production was made with a few simple props and exquisite iconic costumes on a red dirt floor. He held stage magic, ritual and psychological reality in Shakespearean duration, vast fast-paced battles after moments of intense intimacy. A serpent of flame emerged from the darkness, dragging a dancer in its wake; a torchlight battle ended in a nuclear eruption; arrows seemed to cross the scene, horses gallop. The mise-en-scène had the brilliance and bravery that might have grabbed attention were it not for the obvious consequence of trying to find the most expressive way to tell the story.

Peter was 92 the last time I saw him, to give a conference together on the Olivier stage. He was physically fragile and when we came on stage he reached for my arm to guide him through the darkness offstage. As soon as the audience saw him, he stood up to applaud. He threw my arm away, straightened up, walked to the front of the stage and bowed. After our lecture, the audience asked questions: “Why would people pay a lot for a pair of shoes but be reluctant to pay much less for theater tickets?” To which he replied: “Shoes have not let people down over the centuries. The theater a. He was the exception to his rule.

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