Wittgenstein once said that one way of looking at a man's name is as "like piece of jewellery hung round his neck at birth". But when practitioners and an awed public affixed the word "guru" to the name of Peter Brook, they hung an albatross round his neck rather than the garland they had intended. The great director is over here from Paris, with his latest show 11 and 12, a shorter, earthier, re-angled and now English-language version of Tierno Bokar, a play that began life in 2004 at the Bouffes du Nord, his theatre in Paris and toured the following year to the Warwick Arts Centre. 11 and 12 is about to open for a three-week run as part of BITE at the Barbican Centre, which has also organised a season of Brook's films.
Some of these celluloid works were conceived as films from the outset, such as the celebrated adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and some of them are film versions of works that began life, famously, in the theatre such as Marat/Sade and the historic King Lear, with Paul Scofield, a production which opened in Stratford in 1962 and inspired a generation. David Hare, who has since crossed swords with Brook, is on record as saying that this Lear was the reason he decided to make a life in the theatre. Later, the white-box Meyerholdian Midsummer Night's Dream fired the youthful souls of such renowned theatre makers as Deborah Warner and Simon McBurney.
He has been the target of a couple of snide articles. But folk who like their gurus solemn and self-important will be disappointed to learn that Brook was quite merrily resilient in the face of these swipes. A lot of it boils down, he suggests, to false expectation. He says that one of the journalists "came expecting to find the Dalai Lama and instead discovered a little king of the trolls. I enjoyed that". He's often misrepresented by hacks who want uneducated prejudices confirmed. After 35 years, he is handing over the reins at the Bouffes, the former music hall in Paris that has been his base since he left Britain in the mid-Seventies for the creative freedom that French subsidy can provide.
11 and 12 arrives in Britain not quite unscathed by the (otherwise approbatory) press it received when it opened at the Bouffes in January. There have been charges of exoticism and cultural tourism. Based on the work of the Malian writer, Amâdou Hampaté Bâ, the show is delivered, presentationally, as the recollections of a narrator-figure whose shifting moods are underscored with an instrumental soundscape created by a musician at the side. Co-conceived by Brook and his long-time collaborator, Marie-Héléne Estienne, the new version has a saltier sense of comedy than the longer original and, though it still conveys a mystical message is less in danger of being thought preachy. "After we had played Tierno Bokar at the Warwick Arts Centre, I received a polite but firm letter from a young man who said that he did not go to the theatre in search of a sermon. That was what partly persuaded me to make a second attempt on the material."
There are emphatically larky episodes, such as when the Malian schoolboys discover, with category-questioning delight, that the excrement on the lavatory paper of the white masters is the same colour as theirs. The title character is the real-life Sufi sage mystic, Tierno Bokar (1875-1939) who tries to help resolve the deadly sectarian dispute that breaks out over a trivial point of ritual (whether to intone a particular prayer 11 or 12 times at religious gatherings). The unrest begins on a tiny scale – the narrator indicates the initial scale by showing a single prayer-bead, trapped between thumb and forefinger – and ramifies to encompass massacres and martyrdom, linking a small west African village to key decisions made by France during the Second World War.
Why has Brook made a switch to the English language? "Because the French language, however rough you try to make it, always has an elevated feel and we wanted to make this version much earthier." Last time, the eponymous figure was portrayed by Sotigui Kouyaté, the distinguished Burkinabé actor who is long, bony and otherworldly-looking like a cross between an El Greco saint and a Giacometti sculpture. This time, both the mystic and his sometime adversary, Chérif Hamallah, are wonderfully well played by a pair of Palestinian actors who are fairly dumpy and possessed of engagingly knobbly, lived-in features. The crucial turning point in the piece is a movement of spirit on to which the play and the production refuse to pry: after several nights spent in consultation with Hammalah, the mystic elects to go transcend the divide by adopting the rival number of prayers. The result is ostracism and lonely death and the realisation, in profoundly lonely terms, of his spiritual hope that "I pray God that at the moment I die I have more enemies to whom I have done nothing than friends".
Brook is not afraid of confronting the points raised by the detractors of the piece. These are that it fails to give enough political context; that it treats Islam as though it were an indigenous state rather than itself the result of colonial conquest; that if you were to universalise Tierno's gesture among the oppressed, it would be a field day for the oppressors. But his refusal to enter into a direct debate (though he knows a huge amount about the history of the area and the wider context) is itself continuous with the wisdom that 11 and 12 proposes. It is the wisdom also enshrined in another of his recent stagings, The Grand Inquisitor episode from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Christ returns to Earth and is arrested by the authorities, with the formidable Inquisitor informing him that they have had to rescind the freedom that Christ granted to man. How dare the Redeemer make this tactless come-back and disturb the totalitarian set-up that the Catholic Church has established for man's safety? But it is the silent Christ who has the decisive last word, so to speak, with the subversive kiss of forgiveness that leaves the Inquisitor's cheek burning.
"I would not want to engage directly with the criticisms but say something parallel to them," says Brook. He argues that, rather than stage the kind of even in-depth debates you can find in newspapers and on television "the theatre should be about touching something of the hidden feeling behind certain events, of bringing the invisible into palpable life. For one moment, one's own emotional prejudices can be opened. The English, of course, have a terror of mysticism even though Shakespeare is drenched with it very deeply and with a sense of something that we can't name". He is very far from apolitical and is not advocating quietism but, rather, urging a role for the theatre that would help it spiritually fortify those involved in righteous struggle.
We met, as we have done several times, in a hotel in the Rue de la Paix. We talked on this last occasion of a variety of things – for example, of how his relationship to filming was "a bit like sex – a purely physical joy in the high technology of film stock and lenses".
About filming a play first mounted in theatre, he says: "My aim is not to photograph it dutifully but to try to create an equivalent of the feeling that the audience had when they saw it on stage – otherwise, over time it will end up looking like home-movie footage of a distant party to which the viewer had never been invited.
"Of all my films, the one I like best is Tell Me Lies is the one that was thought politically incorrect at the time, but which now has new relevance because of the political relations between the US and Britain." This is the film in which he created cinematic equivalents of US, the stage show which was a collective exploration of reaction to the United States' war in Vietnam.
Later this year, he will stage in Paris a one-woman show entitled Warum, Warum? (why, why?) "Miriam Goldschmidt will play a generic actor who asks questions about theatre and its purpose, using texts from great early 20th-century directors, such as Meyerhold and Edward Gordon Craig, the pioneers on a new continent". Brook knew Gordon Craig, son of Ellen Terry and a true visionary of the theatre. In some ways, he was a precursor to Brook, except that, with him, the exile in France and the ambitious schemes proved to be as fruitless as in Brook's case they have been productive. "In Warum, Warum?, the actress tells the story of how Gordon Craig once stood in the wings of a theatre in Düsseldorf and saw a sign saying "Sprechen Verboten" (speech forbidden) and thought, ah, how clever of them to have discovered the real meaning of theatre."
At the Bouffes, he is handing over to two people he knows well, Olivier Mantei and Olivier Poubelle, and "who want to make the intertwining of drama and music an ever wider part of the theatre's brief. It continues the experiment that we began with the [stripped-back, chamber] Carmen. It is not copying the past but evolving. There have been no speeches" – nor, in a sense, any need of them for Brook is developing a production of Mozart's Magic Flute for the new dispensation. If Groucho Marx sang, "Hallo, I must be going", with Peter Brook, as he embarks on a fresh phase at 84, it's more a case of "Goodbye, I'm just arriving".
'11 and 12' is at the Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) 5 to 27 FebruaryReuse content