Like cats, he seemed to have had (at least) nine lives. But Peter Brook has definitely gone to the other side, to the side of this invisible, which he had never ceased to want to approach, again and again. The British director, living in France since 1974, died on Saturday July 2 in Paris, at the age of 97, Le Monde learned on Sunday.

With him died one of the most important theatrical adventures of the second half of the 20th century, which made the theater a fabulous instrument for exploring the human being, in all its dimensions, through legendary shows: Le Songe d ‘une nuit d’été, La Tempête, La Tragedie de Carmen, Le Mahabharata, La Cerisaie, L’Homme qui…, up to this marvelous Magic Flute created by the master in 2010 in his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, up to to this Battlefield which, in the fall of 2015, saw him offer a pure and luminous quintessence of his theater and his research.

This aesthetic of diversity, this ethic of curiosity had been steeped from the outset in the history of his family. Peter Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925, to Jewish immigrant parents from Latvia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His father, Simon, a young rebel belonging to the Menshevik party, had to go into exile in 1907, accompanied by his very young wife, Ida. The couple studied in Paris and Liège, before fleeing Belgium for England in 1914, with the arrival of the German army. The Russian name of the family, which was pronounced Bryck, was distorted into Brouck in its transcription by the French administration, before becoming Brook on arrival in England.

Peter Brook invariably confided, when teased on this subject, that he had no real connection with his Jewish origins. On the other hand, Russian culture was still strongly present in his family, and will remain, throughout his life, inscribed in a very intimate way, as an essential key to understanding this man who was both tremendously open and totally enigmatic.

This link with Russia was thus at the heart of his meeting, in 1950, with his wife, the actress Natasha Parry (1930-2015), also of Russian origin: Peter Brook had been struck, in particular, by the fact that ‘she was called like the heroine of War and Peace, by Tolstoy… The couple will name their daughter Irina, in homage to the youngest of the heroines of the Three Sisters, by Chekhov – Irina Brook (born in 1962) is She is also a director and directs the National Theater of Nice from 2014 to 2019.

A dazzling career

Passionate about photography and cinema, the young man, who hates a traditionalist and xenophobic British educational institution, would like to become a director, in this gray England of the end of the war and the post-war period. But the world of cinema seems inaccessible to him. So he turned to the theater, in Oxford, where he studied Russian literature.

The career of the ambitious young man was dazzling: his first professional production at the age of 21, in 1946, with Love’s Labour’s Lost, by Shakespeare, the author-continent he never stopped surveying throughout his life, and which will structure all his reflection on the theatre. At 22, he signs with Romeo and Juliet his first show in the Shakespearean temple of Stratford-upon-Avon.

At 23, he was appointed production manager at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. He was fired from it a few months later, after having shaken up the habits of this venerable institution too much, and caused a great scandal with his staging of Salomé, by Richard Strauss, in the surrealist decorations of Salvador Dali.

Nicknamed the terrible child, Peter Brook could have continued like this, as a brilliant young man working without qualms both in the institution and in the commercial theater. But, from the middle of the 1950s, his relationship to the theater began to change imperceptibly, opening this long period of innovation which was to make him one of the essential figures of the theatrical renewal of the second half of the 20th century, from his reflection on the “mortal theater”, having lost all meaning.

First, he shifted his focus – already… – by working in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera, and in Paris, where he staged The Cat on a Burning Roof, by Tennessee Williams, Vu du pont, by Arthur Miller and, in 1960, Le Balcon, by Jean Genet, which has yet to premiere in France. But it is above all his stylized staging of Titus Andronicus, in 1955, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which marks a milestone in the history of the theater, by imposing a new vision of Shakespeare, and by laying the first stone of this counting. refined which will become the essence of his art.

Empty space theory

In the early 1960s, Brook, nourished by the writings of the pioneers of theatrical modernity – the Russian Meyerhold, the Englishman Gordon Craig and, above all, the French Antonin Artaud and his theater of cruelty –, stimulated by the all-out effervescence of those years, in particular the research of the Living Theater and that of the Polish Jerzy Grotowski, broke definitively with the official theatre. He tackles madness, the death camps, the Vietnam War, with Marat-Sade and L’Instruction, by Peter Weiss, and US, a collective creation.

“I was saturated with this imagery that I had loved so much, and I felt more and more that at the heart of the theater there is only one thing, which is the human being, and therefore the actor”, Peter Brook explained to us in an interview conducted in November 2010. “I started to take an interest in inner development, in techniques based on body movements, breathing, to bring out the person’s full potential. »

This research is formalized in 1968 by a theoretical work that has become a classic, Empty Space, which opens with these famous lines: “I can take any empty space and call it a stage. Someone is crossing this empty space while someone else is watching, and that is enough to initiate the theatrical act. “I also really wanted to break down the banister, this fourth invisible wall which, in the theater, separates the stage and the room, added Peter Brook in November 2010. In classical theater, the structure of the rooms is a structure bourgeois, which conditions the content. At the same time, I felt the need, experienced in 1968 thanks to Jean-Louis Barrault, to have an international workshop. If we want to talk about the human being, we cannot reduce it to the white and bourgeois human being of our societies. »

In 1970, Brook created his last show on the official English stage, with this Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was also a landmark, perching the actors on trapezes, in an empty space of a immaculate whiteness. But above all, he created his International Center for Theatrical Research (CIRT), made up of actors from all over the world, some of whom, like the Briton Bruce Myers and the Japanese Yoshi Oïda, would remain faithful to the end.

For three years, they will play everywhere, in France, in the Middle East, in Africa, in America, and especially where the theater does not go: in residences of immigrants in the suburbs and shantytowns in Paris, in the ruins of Persepolis in Iran, in the depths of the Sahara and on village squares in Mali or Nigeria, among the Chicanos on the Mexican border and on an Indian reservation, in the streets of the Bronx or Brooklyn, at Sainte -Anne in Paris or in a company in Jouy-en-Josas (Yvelines), in garages, abandoned cinemas…

The adventure of the Bouffes du Nord

During these three years, Peter Brook has advanced in his reflection on what a shared theatrical space is: how is the link created with the spectator? How to avoid the cut between the closed place of the theater and the outside, life, real life? In 1974, the miraculous rediscovery of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, which was falling into ruin, in the popular district of La Chapelle, in Paris (10th), gave him the opportunity to synthesize all his research.

It will be the beginning of an exceptional adventure, especially for the French spectators who have followed it passionately. An adventure that continued until the winter of 2010, when Peter Brook staged A Magic Flute, “his” Flute, based on Mozart’s opera, and handed over the keys to “his” theater to Olivier Poubelle and Olivier Mantéi, a duo of administrators from the world of music. And which continued even further, since the new bosses then welcomed all the creations of the master.

Peter Brook had found in this magical place that is the Bouffes du Nord everything he dreamed of, as he told us in an interview in 2004: a theater set up in a popular and cosmopolitan district, carrying a story, a memory inscribed on its walls as on skin, and “endowed with extraordinary proportions, unique in Europe, which we later discovered were the same as those of Shakespeare’s Theater of the Rose”.

“Doesn’t it look like a courtyard, a mosque, a house at the same time? asked Peter Brook proudly as he walked around the owner. “Les Bouffes is really the chameleon space I dreamed of, both indoors and outdoors, capable of stimulating and freeing the imagination of the spectator, a space where sharing is possible, as well as the concentration that theater requires. Because the theater is nothing but a more concentrated human experience than those we are used to living in real life. »

The search for this “more concentrated human experience” will give rise to a whole series of unforgettable shows, in this unique space, including Peter Brook and the co-director of the theatre, Micheline Rozan (1928-2018), a leading woman who has accompanied him since the 1950s, knew how to keep the “beauty of the ruins”, with its cracked walls, the red color of Pompeii, symbols of the ephemeral which in essence defines the theater.

All-encompassing human experience

In October 1974, for the opening, it will be Timon of Athens – Shakespeare, of course –, with François Marthouret, Maurice Bénichou, Bruce Myers… Then there will be Les Iks, according to the story, studied by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, from an African tribe that passed seamlessly from the Iron Age into the 20th century; The Bird Conference, inspired by the 12th century Persian poet Farid Al-Din Attar; La Cerisaie, an intimate Chekhov, with Michel Piccoli; The Tragedy of Carmen, led by the irresistible Hélène Delavault, with which Brook completely renews musical theatre; The Mahabharata, according to the great mythical Indian story, undoubtedly its emblematic show, if you had to choose only one, created in a stone quarry, at the Avignon Festival.

And then again The Tempest – always Shakespeare… –, with the Malian actor Sotigui Kouyaté (1936-2010), another favorite actor, in the role of the magician Prospero; The Man Who, inspired by the research of neurologist Oliver Sacks; The Island, Le Costume and Sizwe Banzi est mort, pieces from South African townships; Hamlet, with Jamaican-born English comedian Adrian Lester; Tierno Bokar, after Amadou Hampaté Ba, The Death of Krishna, after Vyasa, and The Grand Inquisitor, after Dostoyevsky, three reflections on religion and tolerance…

The summary is dizzying, and the measure of a man who seems to have wanted to encompass all of human experience, including its esoteric or mystical dimensions. The fundamental influence of an Elizabethan theater – “Shakespeare is the origin of everything”, he said – at the same time comic and tragic, political and frivolous, raw and sacred, joined in him with more mysterious searches, in particular the work carried out for years with disciples of the spiritual master Georges Gurdjieff (1866-1949), character on whom he made his film Meeting with remarkable men, in 1979.

Peter Brook, however, hated being taken for a guru, and being asked what was the connection between his knowledge – and his practice – of Eastern philosophies, his taste for esotericism and his work with actors. In his luminous loft in the Bastille, in Paris, a vast empty space mainly furnished with carpets and books – on art, anthropology, philosophy… – his laser blue eye rested on you with even more intensity than usual, and he answered you that “the human being is the only esotericism which deserves to be deciphered”. Which was still a cat pirouette, this magical animal among all, since this human “esotericism” requires many keys and techniques to be deciphered.

The director has made the theater the place par excellence for this plurality of approaches. But with the man Peter Brook, the mystery only deepened as more was known about him.


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