Peter Brook's first ambition was to be a film director. But he was a young man in a hurry and did not relish the prospect of serving a long apprenticeship. So he fell into theatre, a move he saw at the time as "a detour through an old-fashioned province [that] could eventually lead me back to the highway I wanted to take". It must count as one of the most productive and eventful detours in cultural history.
Widely recognised as the greatest theatre director to have emerged since the Second World War, Brook will be 80 next March. He's a man who - in mid-life and at the pinnacle of success with his historic white-box-and-trapezes A Midsummer Night's Dream - kicked away the careerist ladder, turned his back on England and moved to France in search of working conditions conducive to profound, long-term theatrical research. The French, in happy contrast to Brook's fellow Brits, are prepared to fund gifted individuals as well as institutions. The veteran director is currently celebrating his 30th year at the Bouffes du Nord, the wonderful disused music hall with the mysterious proportions of a mosque that he discovered and reopened in all its battered beauty in 1974.
From this Paris base, Brook led his multinational company (which originally included Helen Mirren) on a succession of epic journeys. They travelled through West Africa, with the aim of seeing what could be learnt about theatre by throwing away all the customary props of shared reference and by performing stories outdoors on a carpet to audiences who had neither a language nor social and cultural conventions in common with the actors. On a mountaintop in Iran, they delivered Orghast, a version of the Prometheus legend in an invented language that Ted Hughes had conjured from some Jung-meets-Chomsky level of the brain. In California, they improvised sketches for strikers. They mounted an astonishing nine-hour trilogy of plays derived from The Mahabharata, the longest narrative poem in existence and a touchstone of Hindu thought. Premiered through the night in a quarry in Avignon, this story of two warring clans in a tottering universe ended with a vision of paradise, timed to coincide with the first light of dawn breaking over the cliff.
Brook's journeys have been a constant search for deeper ways of discovering "what is the essence of theatre" and "what can theatre uniquely do?". In their hunger for meaning, they have also been spiritual quests.
Religion becomes an explicit theme in the remarkable three plays that he has just unveiled at the Bouffes du Nord. It forms a fervent response to the post-9/11 world, but one which is different from the head-on documentary-drama approach of David Hare's Stuff Happens or Guantanamo or the boisterous agit-prop of Embedded. Religious extremism, a travesty of true spiritual feeling, is tearing the planet apart. So Brook's trio fastens on situations where a figure in whom the religious impulse is still pure offers heartening resistance to the institutional corruption or political exploitation of faith. The central piece (which will visit England next year) is the hauntingly beautiful Tierno Bokar, adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne from Amadou Hampaté Bâ's book about the eponymous real-life village sage. Set in French-occupied Mali in the first half of the 20th century, the play charts how, for its own political ends, the colonial administration inflamed an initially peaceable doctrinal dispute among the Muslims over whether a particular prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times. From these modest, almost banal beginnings, the situation escalated into massacres and martyrdom, linking a small African village to key policy decisions in the Second World War. The charismatic oppositional figure here is Tierno Bokar, a humble teacher who achieved the spiritual humility to switch sides in the now violent doctrinal dispute, an exemplary act that leads to his ostracism and death.
The piece is flanked by two one-man plays, both performed by Maurice Benichou. In La Mort de Krishna, a postscript to The Mahabharata, the divine hero comes to accept the wisdom that there are times when even a god must consent to die, while the third section, Le Grand Inquisiteur, dramatises the scene in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in which Christ returns to earth and is arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. The redoubtable Inquisitor informs Christ that the Catholic Church has had to rectify His unfortunate mistake of giving man the intolerable curse of freedom of thought. How dare the Redeemer come back and threaten to disturb the totalitarian set-up that has been created? It's the wordless Christ, though, who delivers the coup de grâce in the kiss of forgiveness he plants on the astonished old man's cheek.
I went to Paris to see the three plays and to talk to Brook, who is as formidably alert and attentive as ever. He winces at being described as a "guru" and if that's how he comes across in some interviews, it's not his fault but a failure in the writing to convey the sly humour which frequently gives a curly twist to those high, wiry tones of his. For example, I once met him in London a few days before he was due to be invested as a Companion of Honour. "I'm not sure," he grinned impishly, "which spot the Queen touches you on for this." On another occasion I interviewed him over tea at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Brook took great delight in recalling how, when he was an undergraduate, he persuaded the notorious Aleister Crowley (then known as "the Wickedest Man in the World") to hide in his bedroom so that he could create a sensation by suddenly producing him at the height of a college party. (Brook was evidently a precocious director offstage as well as on.) Crowley had stayed at the Randolph where he had scandalised a waiter who asked him for his room number by roaring, "The number of the Great Beast, of course - 666!" Brook can always see the funny side. During our recent conversation in Paris, my tape ran out with a loud, insolent click, just as Brook was explaining some point of Hindu philosophy and bewailing how the word "spiritual" has become a dirty word in our culture. "See," he flashed, "even the machine won't have it. It's Western; it doesn't want to know."
The director expands on the thinking behind the three plays. "The 20th century was based on two clear-cut things - capitalism and communism - and one knew where one stood. What is terrifying now is that this century is a confrontation of religions, because Bush has been elected very largely as a 'man of God'. With religious extremist versus religious extremist, the precious thing that religion is all about is lost." I suggest that similarities with the current situation in Iraq must have struck them while they were rehearsing Tierno Bokar. "The more we worked on it, the more we saw that you can substitute 'American' for 'French' and 'Sunni' and 'Shi'ite' for the adherents of 11 and 12. But at the same time for us the great interest is not to do that literally. I'm sure that if we did exactly the same play spelling out the equivalents, it would be unable to go beyond what everyone is receiving day after day from television and newspapers."
What then, for Brook, is theatre's true role at this time? It can, he says, help us "to catch glimpses of what our lives have lost and give us a fleeting taste of qualities long forgotten". Read on the page in Dostoevsky's novel, the Grand Inquisitor's logic rolls on like a relentless juggernaut. Embodied on the stage, though, in Brook's production, the unsettling power of Christ's impassive presence is palpable. The more implacably Maurice Benichou's Inquisitor makes his case, the more he looks as though he is coming unravelled inwardly. "He's one of those people," says Brook, "who can persuade anyone of anything - except, of course, himself." The final line of the scene, "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man sticks to his idea", suggests that under the ideological stubbornness the doubt has intensified.
Brook seems to be arguing that theatre should intervene in the current turmoil rather in the manner of Dostoevsky's Christ who declines to enter into debate but reaches beyond it with an eloquent and subversive gesture. "The answer is not discussion but direct experience and that is something theatre can offer," Brook proclaims. Theatre is there to go against the tide and "when times are negative, there is only one current that goes secretly against the tide. The positive." You can be a keen admirer (as I am) of the theatre of fact, splendidly represented by the Tricycle's reconstructed "tribunal" dramas, and still agree with Brook that the art form is capable of providing far more than food for thought.
The director is aware that the very word "positive" sets up a negative reaction because of its vagueness and its grating Pollyanna-ish associations. His deeply moving production of Tierno Bokar is positive not in any shallow sense of being falsely consoling or determinedly optimistic or by peddling pious uplift. A play with a hero who says, "I pray to God that at the moment I die I have more enemies to whom I have done nothing than friends", and who expires in just such a terrible, rejected state can't be accused of an unduly rose-tinted perspective on life. No, what the production does is flood the theatre with a fortifying sense of human goodness (it kept reminding me of Iris Murdoch's comment that goodness is much more interesting that evil), even as it piercingly dramatises the personal cost of a virtuous stand. Staged with a glowing simplicity and underscored with the sound of ancient instruments, the event is irradiated by the performance of Sotigui Kouyaté as Tierno. Long and bony like a Giacometti statue, and with an entrancingly gentle presence, this actor has the ability to convey a rare and convincing combination of simplicity and depth. The tolerant wisdom of the Sufi sage - as when he crucially preaches that "There are three realities. My truth, your truth and Truth" - might sound a touch coy coming from anyone else, but such words seem to be underwritten by a lifetime's weathered experience and rigorous contemplation when uttered by Kouyaté.
Brook has always cast his net wide in assembling his company. You can see this humane eclecticism again in the casting of the younger roles here where the performers range from a Belgian who is also a rap and slam singer (Pitcho Womba Konga) to a man (Dorcy Rugamba) who lost all his family in the Rwandan massacres. He recently went back there to take part in an eight-hour dramatisation of those events. This had, according to Brook, an extraordinarily cathartic effect on the audience in which murderers and the families of their victims sat side by side. Both actors are superb in Tierno. I have never seen the currents of feeling between a loving master and his devoted pupil or the faction-transcending respect between two men of wisdom communicated with such rapt, breathtaking beauty.
Brook was born in London in 1925 to Russian émigré parents and was educated at Westminster and Gresham's schools, then at Magdalen College, Oxford. He made his directing debut in London with Dr Faustus when he was just 18. In 1944, he joined a film company, but in 1945 left to direct Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine. He then directed several plays at Birmingham Repertory.
In 1947, he went to Stratford where his Romeo and Juliet met with a less than rapturous welcome. Between 1947 and 1950 he worked at the Royal Opera House and mounted numerous productions in the UK, Europe and US. He married Natasha Parry in 1951 and they had one son and one daughter.
In 1962, he returned to Stratford, to the newly started Royal Shakespeare Company, of which he was made a co-director, and where he directed Paul Scofield in King Lear. In 1970, with Jean-Louis Barrault, he set up the Paris-based International Centre for Theatre Research, the aim of which was to explore the fundamentals of historical and worldwide drama. He worked with the centre throughout the Eighties, travelling to Asia and Africa, and presenting experimental productions, including Ubu Roi (1977), The Cherry Orchard (1981) and The Mahabharata in 1985. In 1978, he returned to Stratford to direct a widely praised Antony and Cleopatra starring Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard.
His film work includes Lord of the Flies (1962), Marat/Sade (1967) and Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979). He has written several books on the theory and practice of the theatre, as well as a memoir, Threads of Time: Recollections, which was published in 1998.
As Brook approaches his 80th birthday, it's good to recall some of the many ways in which he has been a pathfinder and inspiration. He virtually invented the idea of the Fringe when, for his 1964 production of Genet's The Screens, he moved theatre out of the theatre, so speak, and commandeered the Donmar - in those days an enormously tall, bare converted warehouse - to give him the freedom and room he needed for the amazing four-level action of the final scene. Likewise, it would be hard to overestimate the influence of his 1968 classic, The Empty Space. He's modest about this, pointing out that he assembled these lectures in book form for the pragmatic purpose of funding a trip to Afghanistan. What pleased him most, though, was that in the worst days of apartheid in South Africa, the book penetrated through to the townships. "There were all these people dying to make theatre, but theatre buildings didn't exist. At the start of the book, I say that you can take an empty space and call it a bare stage; you don't need red curtains, spot-lights and tip-up seats. To hear this idea from someone far away with all those supposed advantages - that was useful for them, which is my only criterion."
Of the generation of directors that includes Deborah Warner, Simon McBurney, and Declan Donnellan, a great many were fired with the desire to work in theatre by the revelatory A Midsummer Night's Dream, a production which they saw as teenagers in 1970. For practitioners, Brook is the magician who can stage diametrically opposed theatrical techniques in the same show, as when he thrillingly rammed together the violent immediacy of Antonin Artaud's creed, with its analogy of theatre to a police-raid on a red-light district, and the cool, distancing scepticism of Brecht and his alienation technique in his celebrated production of Marat/Sade, the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play performed by the inmates of a lunatic asylum. He excites as a director who can constantly reinvent himself, moving, say, from the vast mythic canvas of The Mahabarata to the interior of the brain for The Man Who, his immaculate meditation on neurological disorders and what they tell us about what it means to be human. Brook also stands as an eloquent indictment of this country's reluctance to fund brilliant mavericks. "The Bouffes du Nord would not have existed without the support we have now had for 30 years from the French Ministry of Culture who have never asked to see our programme in advance or to justify it. That simply could not happen in England."
In January, at the Barbican, English audiences can see Brook's staging of Ta Main dans la Mienne, an exquisite miniature derived from the letters between Chekhov and his actress wife Olga Knipper, and beautifully performed by Natasha Parry and Michel Piccoli. Funny, sad, and at moments strangely mystical, the production makes delicate play with the paradox of the actors' shifting proximity to each other on stage and the regular aching distance between the correspondents - Chekhov in Yalta because of his tuberculosis and Olga busy creating roles in his new works in Moscow and St Petersburg. "This theme touches people very much," says Brook, "because today, with equal careers, it's not just theatre couples who have this problem - coming together and being torn apart, one with the in-laws while the other's on a plane to Hong Kong."
Brook himself was just about to fly to New York to prepare for the visit of Tierno Bokar. He shows little sign of slowing down. It remains to be seen what he has in store for us in his ninth decade but we can be confident that he will continue to extend the possibilities of the art form and confirm the truth of one of his own sayings: that "theatre reopens what definition closes".
Peter Brook/CICT/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, 'Ta Main dans la Mienne' ('Your Hand in Mine') Barbican Centre, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) 26 January to 12 February 2005Reuse content