THEATRE / Start from the top: All the world really is a stage for Peter Brook - Irving Wardle reviews his 50-year career

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DIRECTORS may have a mere 100-year history in the European theatre, but in England it is a good deal shorter than that. Their origin dates from 1942, and the first production of the 17-year-old Peter Brook. Previously, those who produced plays came via an apprenticeship in acting or writing. Brook, with the power of the Brooklax laxative fortune behind him, was the first who started at the top, with no prior experience, as a director and nothing else. He set the pattern for the subsequent generations of university Wunderkinder who transformed the structure and aesthetic priorities of the English stage. As Peter Hall says, 'He paved the way for all of us; he made us feel that if he could do it, we could try too.' Fifty years later, Brook is still the pathfinder of his profession, while many of his juniors have lost their energy or lapsed on to a conveyor belt.

Directors as a breed often succumb to mid-life disenchantment with what Tyrone Guthrie ruefully described as a 'semi-creative occupation'. That phrase does not apply to Brook, whose whole career amounts to a demonstration in the art of keeping creatively alive. As a young man, he played the existing theatrical system: emerging as a dazzling classicist with his 1946 Love's Labour's Lost; and extending his reach to the Royal Opera House (resident director at the age of 23), and to the lushest pastures of the West End where his 1950 production of Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon epitomised the post- war return to glamour. He directed the favoured upmarket writers of the time - Eliot, Fry, Graham Greene, Sartre, - as well as jackpot musicals like Irma la Douce.

Alert to the new mood sweeping through the French and English stage in the late Fifties, he seized the chance to express it through the resources of the recently formed Royal Shakespeare Company: first with a Beckettian King Lear (1962) which went on to a triumphant international tour (Britain's first post-war show to reach Moscow) and which set the standard for all subsequent revivals; and then - under the slogan of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty - with Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and a multi-author collage on the Vietnam war, US This line of work came to an end in 1970 with A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in a white gymnasium and combining incomparable verse-speaking with French circus techniques. Another huge international hit, this was the most famous production of his life; but already, Brook was on the way out.

Until then he had been successful in pursuing his own research within institutional systems. But now he found a way of escaping the treadmill altogether. With assistance from the French government, he set up the Centre for International Theatre Research in Paris, took over a derelict theatre, the Bouffes du Nord, and embarked on a theatrical odyssey which took him and his multilingual troupe to Iran, Africa, and India. Little of this work appeared in Britain, and accounts of pieces like Orghast (a ceremony in an invented language) in the ruins of Persepolis, and the African carpet shows, were often received with scepticism: until the 1988 tours of The Mahabharata (first seen in Avignon in 1985) which confirmed all the travellers' tales in the most majestic fusion of Eastern and Western theatre ever to electrify a performance space.

'Magpie', 'magician', ''showman', 'guru' are among the terms that are often applied to him. But this master escapologist is not to be pinned down by any label. He brings no clutter from the past with him.

His domain is empty space; his art is to charge it with life.