Books; Passionate pilgrim

For half a century, Peter Brook has tried through stage experiments to keep the theatre alive and kicking. Michael Arditti traces the path of a mobile maverick
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Like the woman who was, last year, pronounced dead by her docto,r only to be heard tapping on the lid of her coffin, the British theatre continues to survive its obituaries. The funeral service is packed; the crocodile tears are flowing; the organist is playing a medley of songs by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, when proceedings are interrupted by news of a play by Brian Friel or a performance by Kevin Spacey; and the corpse revives.

That the theatre arouses more hostility than any other art form is due partly to practitioners who insist on treating it as the measure of the nation's cultural health and partly to the sense of its living off former glory. It has lost both its sacred and social functions, being no longer a means of healing the city, as it is thought to have been in ancient Athens, nor of presenting the city to itself, as it was in 17th-century London. Far from uniting in communal celebration, audience members eschew contact. The stalls, like the grave, are a very private place.

So why do audiences remain faithful? Why, when the immediacy of theatre makes a bad experience more painful than one in any other art-form, do we take the risk? Why, when the quality of writing for the stage lags far behind that of contemporary fiction, don't we curl up with a book? Why, when its conventions are dated and its auditoria the product of vanished hierarchies, don't we sit comfortably at home? Is it out of a sense of duty: does the theatre make Leonard Basts of us all? Or is there some transforming power - a unique combination of control and danger - that makes the theatre, at its best, the most potent of all the arts?

Such questions are raised by the career of Peter Brook and his new memoir Threads of Time (Methuen, pounds 17.99). In a profession not only short-lived but stratified, he has repeatedly reinvented himself and redefined his art. And yet it becomes clear on reading the memoir that after the right- place-at-the-right-times beginnings - directing at Stratford at 21 and Director of Productions at Covent Garden a year later - what has marked him out has been the specific philosophical approach behind his work.

Brook's current Paris production, Je Suis Un Phenomene, concerns a man with total recall. Here he takes the opposite approach, being both consciously and unconsciously selective. He provides few details about his Russian Jewish parents (to whom he was devoted) and makes no mention of his brother Alexis after Cambridge. He writes almost exclusively about the professional side of his marriage to the actress Natasha Parry, and alludes to his children only in passing. This is a book with a purpose: "What I am trying to weave together as best I can are the threads that have helped develop my own practical understanding, in the hope that somewhere they may contribute usefully to someone else's experience."

It is not, however, a theoretical work like The Empty Space (and it is instructive to discover that seminal text was written to finance a six- month trip to Afghanistan). It charts the progress from his pragmatic approach as a jobbing director to his present highly-developed artistic and spiritual philosophy. It will come as a surprise to those who regard him as the high priest of theatrical austerity that his original ambition was focused on the cinema and he only fell into the theatre by chance. And yet, in spite of films which include Lord of the Flies and Moderato Cantabile, he never achieved the mastery in the medium of his fellow theatre directors, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.

It was, however, his love of cinema that made him, for years, a passionate proponent of the picture-frame stage, and he worked prominently in the boulevard theatres of England, America and France - although it must be a defective rather than a selective memory which leads him to insert an incident from A Streetcar Named Desire into the French premiere of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Working on Jean Genet's The Balcony in Paris, he first understood the importance of improvisation, a realisation that inspired his work in the Theatre of Cruelty season for the newly formed RSC. His attempts to find an alternative to the predominantly literary tradition of the British theatre fed into what remains his most celebrated production, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

His artistic journey was accompanied by a spiritual one. For 40 years, his life and work have been underpinned by the philosophy of Gurdjieff. The experimental nature of the teachings, defined by his first teacher, Jane Heap, as "an understanding that can only be communicated directly, not by writing or by theory", revealed a particular attraction to a theatre director, while Heap's insistence that "it is not possible in a group to have one person making clever and malicious observations about the others" makes it clear why the director as tyrant, a role later played to the hilt by John Dexter, was not one that would ever have suited Brook.

His adherence to Gurdjieff's vision explains why he refused to stay with the RSC and to try to repeat the success of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He needed to search, to find new forms in his perpetual quest for the numinous. He made his base in Paris which, unlike London, views experiment as "a natural part of artistic life", and travelled from there to India, Africa and America in an attempt "to see if communication is possible between people from many different parts of the world". These explorations carried back into more formal work such as The Ik, Ubu Roi and, above all, his brilliantly accomplished retelling of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata.

Brook merely records his theatrical work; it is for others to evaluate it. And it has to be acknowledged that his classical productions of recent years (an unmagical Tempest, a dull Cherry Orchard ) have not been as persuasive as his group-devised work. His sad account of Irene Worth's unhappiness when she joined him in Paris points to precisely the element that is missing from such work: the great classical actor's engagement with the text. Likewise, his attempts to forge both a new audience and a new actor-audience relationship have been (inevitably) only half successful. My own experience of the Bouffes du Nord confirms Peter Hall's comment in his Diaries that "there is something vaguely distasteful about seeing le tout Paris telling each other how extraordinaire the whole thing is as they sit hunched on planks, slumming it in the smartest clothes imaginable".

Nevertheless, Brook's remains a vital attempt to assert the value of theatre in an age when, instead of being a metaphor for life, it has become one for falsity. The numinous nature of his best work outweighs all memories of "deadly theatre", and inspires audiences to make their way back to the stalls... or to the planks.

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