THEATRE'S GREAT EXPLORER

Legendary theatre director PETER BROOK talks with James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Never mind the actors; Peter Brook is the star. He is one of just a handful of theatre- directors - Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn are others - whose name attached to a project is more important than any performer's.

Perhaps he cultivates a guru status - giving lectures, he is known to spurn the proffered chair in order to squat on the edge of the stage - but, if so, he more than lives up to it. Now a twinkly, white-haired 71- year-old, Brook has almost become an Obi-Ben Kenobi figure: the foremost thinker in his field, the vanquisher of doubters, spoken of in hushed, reverential tones by disciples.

Richard Gilman, professor of drama at Yale, has said that: "He defined the nature of directing more than anyone else... I don't think there has been a more important director in the English-speaking world in the last 50 years." This newspaper has described him as "England's greatest stage director", while The Guardian calls him "Britain's most experimental and influential director". Not bad for someone who has spent the last 25 years based in Paris.

What magical fairy-dust does he sprinkle on his productions to spellbind critics in this way? John Wyver is the series editor of BBC2's arts strand, Tx, a new series of which opens this Saturday with a film, Time Flies, about Brook. He reckons that what distinguishes Brook's work is "his rigorous and relentless questioning of what theatre can be and what its relationship to our lives is. That's what's makes it so exciting."

Certainly, his productions have always challenged people's preconceptions. At just 24, he gained a reputation as an enfant terrible - which has never entirely left him - by producing a radical reinterpretation of Richard Strauss's opera, Salome, at Covent Garden. Even now, he is still jolting audiences. Qui Est La?, a recent offering at his Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, deconstructed Hamlet, viewing Shakespeare's text through the eyes of five 20th-century theatrical philosophes: Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Craig, Brecht and Artaud.

Fixing you with his limpid blue eyes, it is easy to see how Brook inspires companies to create such iconoclastic work. Actors will unquestioningly rehearse the 12 gruelling hours a day he demands because they know the end-product will justify it.

Facing me across a table in a faceless BBC conference room and dressed in a black jacket and red-brown shirt, he remembers that at first "I faced barriers. Every critic established that there were things that had been done in the past which could never be changed. When I started, I had a barrage of people saying, `What the hell is going on?' It was a period when the very nature of theatre was changing. At the time, I recognised it as an occupational hazard. I was in an honourable tradition because I knew that exactly the same had happened to every major play by Chekhov and Ibsen. But Kenneth Tynan began to change the whole relationship of critics to new work. "

Passionate about his work, Brook is the archetypal artist. His everyday language is soaked in philosophy and poetry. He is like a visitor from Planet Art gracing us with his presence.

Here is his assessment of his strengths as a director: "My strength is not wanting to have a strength. In the past, the great figures in theatre were directors whose job it was to have great ideas and get others to follow them. The cliche was that the director was like the conductor of an orchestra. Although you deplored it in government, you didn't question it in the theatre.

"But trial and error has found that the director is like a guide in an expedition," Brook continues. "He has to be fully prepared and lead in a crisis, but the rest of the time, he is evolving and interacting with the others. The director's strength is a shared strength. The experience in the theatre is less rich if it is one's person's point of view than if it is a multitude of people's point of view. It's the opposite of Mrs Thatcher who used to say, `There is only one view of life, and yours is wrong'."

It is this modus operandi that works to make the Tx film, Time Flies, so intriguing. After a 10-year effort, Brook has reunited six of the original cast members from his haunting film, Lord of the Flies, on the remote Puerto Rican island where it was shot 35 years ago.

The effect of the film is "drip-drip" rather than "wham-bam". Richard Dale, producer and director of Time Flies, explains: "I tried to reflect Brook's philosophy. He raises questions that aren't necessarily answered. He's not interested in the outcome, but in the process. It's not the performance but the rehearsal that matters; it's there he finds the truth."

Despite all his past successes, Brook doesn't dwell on them. "What is interesting is what's happening now." he muses. "Every single event is interesting only as a springboard. The theatre recognises the fact that life is like a party or eating or lovemaking. There is a momentary glow at the end, then it is over once and for all."

Never content to sit back with a satisfied look on his face, this remarkable man will obviously just carry on guiding his expeditions. May the force of Peter Brook be with you.

`Time Flies' is on 23 Nov, 9.30pm, BBC2

THREE LANDMARK BROOK PRODUCTIONS

1. King Lear (1962). Paul Scofield took the lead in this harsh, absurdist reading, described by critic Richard Gilman as "the best Shakespearean production I've ever seen".

2. A Midsummer Night's Dream (1971). Actors on swings and trapezes. John Wyver, editor of Tx, recalls that "this `Dream' was genuinely one of the defining moments of my cultural life."

3. The Mahabharata (1985). This nine-hour adaptation of the Sanskrit epic was performed worldwide by 24 actors from 18 countries. The New York Times hailed it as Brook's "masterwork".

EYE TEST

1925: Born in London, son of two chemists

1945: Graduated from Oxford

1948-9: Director of productions at Covent Garden

1951: Married actress Natasha Parry, by whom he has one son and one daughter

1962-70: Co-director of Royal Shakespeare Company, where he produced, inter alia, The Tempest (1963) and Marat-Sade (1964).

1963: Directed film of William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies.

1968: Wrote book, The Empty Space, something of a bible in theatrical circles

1970-today: Founded Centre International de Recherche Theatrale in Paris, where he directed, Ubu (1977), The Cherry Orchard (1981) and Carmen (1981), among others

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