Remembering Brook

July 10, 2022

Peter Brook, who died last week, was considered one of the greatest directors in the post-war era

Remembering Brook


ery few visitors from the subcontinent went to see the theatre when touring Britain in the post-war decades. Many saw the new film releases, fewer visited the galleries while scant die-hards attempted to venture into theatre. It was not only the lack of taste for theatre but also a forbidding entry fee that dampened their enthusiasm.

But the few die-hards were emboldened by the work of Peter Brook. They even tried to recreate it back home – for Peter Brook who died last week was considered the greatest director in the post-war era along with Peter Hall. People were familiar with the name of Peter Brook because he also did films. In particular, he directed the famous Lord of Flies based on Golding’s novel of the same title.

He was a rebel in the sense that he did not stick to the conventions of theatre or to the general norms that characterise loyalty to a country and society. His ideas of production were also informed by his working for the Royal Opera House and the flowing of the one form into other added layers of creativity to his idea of production. He worked on the continent for years and readily faced the criticism that he did not do enough for the British theatre.

British theatre or not, he did a lot for theatre in general and was more prone to breaking down the general conventions wrapped around what defined the thespian arts. He was more exposed to the ideas of productions which were so to say non-European and Western and was bold enough to take on theatrical forms that were not considered legit by the more staid followers of the performing arts. In 1971, Brook founded the International Centre for Theatre Research, a multinational company of actors, dancers, musicians and others, which travelled widely in the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s from its base in Paris.

Peter Hall was the painter happy with applying bold strokes and was efficient in handling the grand vision of the post-war theatre embodied in the setting-up of the National Theatre that he then went on to run for many years. Both the Peters worked in the theatres of Britain including the Royal Shakespearean Company with Hall paying equal attention to the management side, balancing it with his creative energy, while Brook sought influences from outside the tradition and focused more on production and direction, making theatres infrastructure a by-product of his work and vision.

His openness to Brecht was a good example of his understanding of the forms that were not truly represented in his tradition; it was not only the political vision and understanding but really the sensitivity to the forms of theatre that were the main source of attraction. And he introduced the audiences to wider concepts and parameters of the performing arts that were not embedded in the so-called endemic superiority of the local theatrical tradition. Similarly, his staging of the Marat/ Sade by Richard Weiss also marked a departure for the norms that constricted the practice of theatre and raised many an eyebrow. Bur Brook fed on this breach of traditions and ran his own company with his own set of ideas. He was hugely rewarded in terms of the acceptance that the Western tradition needed to look over its shoulder to other forms of the performing arts that represented the vast array of cultures across the world.

He was bold enough to take on the Indian epic Mahabharata and to turn it into a performance that fed on the values of universality and a commonness of evoked aesthetics content. In these days, when more and more of the other than European stuff is being written about, produced and exhibited, it is difficult to visualise how challenging it was to accept something that was more of the subcontinent. Even its mention was news itself. People talked about Zia Mohyeddin’s Dr Aziz in A Passage to India only because it was seen as an achievement to be picked for something done in the mainstream West. The exchange or the fusion or the interchange has become acceptable but it was not so in the past, even after decolonisation and one of the persons who did make that easier to gulp was Peter Brook.

Brook was influenced by the work of Antonin Artaud and his ideas for his Theatre of Cruelty, Charles Marowitz, and inspired by the theories of experimental theatre of Jeezy Grotowski, Chris Covics and Vsevolod Meyerhold and the works of Edward Gordon Craig and Matila Ghyka.

Brook worked with all the greats of the theatre and performing arts including Paul Schofield in King Lear, Glenda Jackson in Measure for Measure and writers Ted Hughes and William Golding.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

Remembering Brook