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A brief biography
Peter Brook was one of the world's most innovative theatre directors who perfected the art of staging powerful drama in bizarre venues.
The British director used the world as his stage mounting productions ranging from challenging versions of Shakespeare through international opera to Hindu epic poems.
Brook put on plays in gymnasiums, deserted factories, quarries, schools and old gas works in towns around the world.
His 1970 Stratford production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream", played all in white and with a huge garlanded swing, secured his place in the annals of theatre history.
According to Le Monde, Brook had been based in France since 1974.
Although Brook was regarded with awe in theatrical circles, he was less well known among the wider public because of his refusal to bow to commercial taste. He left Britain to work in Paris in 1970.
He often shunned traditional theatrical buildings for the empty space" which could be transformed by light, words, improvisation and the sheer power of acting and suggestion.
"I can take any empty space and call it a stage," he wrote in his ground-breaking 1968 book The Empty Space".
His quest for inspiration took him as far afield as Africa and Iran and produced a variety of original improvised plays marked by his eye for detail and challenging approach.
Born in London on March 21, 1925, his father was a company director and his mother a scientist. He left school at 16 to work in film studio and then went Oxford University and took a degree in English and Foreign Languages.
In 1970 he transferred from Britain to work in Paris, founding the International Centre of Theatre Research which brought together actors and designers of many different nationalities.
Brook continued working into his nineties.
"Every form of theatre has something in common with a visit to the doctor. On the way out, one should always feel better than on the way in," he wrote in his 2017 book 'Tip of the Tongue'.
Peter Brook is best known in India for his monumental production of the Mahabharat, which premiered at the Festival D’Avignon in 1985 as a ninehour theatrical presentation. I was lucky enough to have been invited to the premiere and it took place in a stone quarry, giving the play a prehistoric setting.
The play itself seamlessly merged the mythical and the real. It was presented as an eternal saga of all humanity, although told movingly in India. And it was only this spectacular presentation which made me, an Indian, realise that the Mahabharat does indeed contain all of human history; that which is not in Mahabharat exists nowhere else!
In fragmented times, a theatre of connections: 21 actors from 16 countries, some doing more than one role, enacted a human narrative of epic dimensions, embodying the human predicament, follies, aspirations and failures, the human grandeur and beauty, the betrayals and contradictions, the violence and vainness, all of the human triumphs and defeats. In times which were fragmented and deeply wounded Peter Brook tried to create a theatre which would heal and assure us of survival with dignity. When a great poet was wailing that he could “connect nothing with nothing”, Brook sought to evolve a theatre that would connect our times to past times, history to myth, failure to significance.
And epical dimensions:
He tried to assert an epical version of the human condition through his theatre – epic in its dimensions, reach and depth. It covered a large range of dramatic texts, Shakespeare to Attar. His was a global theatre. For Brook reality was multiple, complex, not amenable to simplification and generalisation. In any case, all theatre aspires to human specifics and hopes that the specific would, through the theatrical process, attain universality. Brook worked on the specifics of locale, tradition, convention, memory etc assiduously but also took care to retain their unstated, sometimes not easily visible, humanness. The human, all its hues and colours were the true domain of his theatrical vision.
Around 40 years ago, he was the only foreign guest at the opening of Bharat Bhavan Bhopal by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He conducted a theatre workshop for a few days there with several top Indian theatre persons including Sombhu Mitra, Habib Tanvir, Vijaya Mehta, NC Jain and BV Karanth as observers.
He seemed to be a man of classical patience. He did not hurry and waited patiently until he got it right! In that workshop he appeared to me to be a Greek monk who bore on his face the glow that struggle, empathy and wisdom together generate.
A Britisher in Paris:
With both a certain audacity and stubbornness he intervened in the parochial but highly successful British theatre of his times and tried to open it up to the fast-globalising world. Eventually he shifted to France and pitched his tents in Paris.
Brook was very sensitive to space. He used all kinds of space to stage his plays: from proscenium theatre to a forest clearing. He seemed to believe that any space could be energised by theatre. For him performance was itself spatial presence, an active vibrating dimension of space.
Once watching a play of his in his own theatrehouse near Gare Du Nord in Paris, with a pool of water created in the middle, it occurred to me that Peter Brook was the magician of space: He could convert any space into theatre-space.
There was always aesthetic completeness in his plays. But they also always left open the moral issues. It was very much in keeping with his vision that the moral dilemmas of mankind are always, sadly perhaps, interminable. There is no final truth and there cannot be one.
His anxieties were perhaps more spiritual than political, unlike the other theatrevisionary Bertolt Brecht. In a world which was being laid asunder by politics, Brook chose to take a morally inclusive but inconclusive view of the human condition. The interrogativeness of his theatre was unmistakably moral and politics was only one factor affecting the human condition. In some sense, his vision was tragic: He wanted to heal the wounds, resolve the dilemmas, override the contradictions but, ironically, theatre could only attempt and struggle, almost always doomed to fail. Peter Brook, like Vyas of the Mahabharat, raising his hand could cry in despair ‘Nobody listens to me. ’ At 97, however, he has died after a full rich life and career. His passing leaves in the world of theatre an empty space. The writer, a former chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, is a poet and a critic. His complete works in Hindi have been published recently.