I was 19 when I saw Peter Brook’s production of king Lear in 1962 and I felt like Berlioz seeing Hamlet: “The flash of that discovery revealed to me in one fell swoop the whole paradise of art. I saw, I understood, I felt that I was alive and that I had to get up and walk.” The production was on a nearly bare stage, stripped of what Brook described as the “quincaillerie” (hardware) of the stage production that had so captivated him as an absurdly young theater and opera director. The work has revealed itself in its elemental force, a world without moral absolutes in a permanent state of fallibility.
Peter was a universally revered director, admired as much for his genius as for his ability to reinvent himself. When I started directing, I wrote to him and to my amazement he invited me to his home where, though I was completely and obviously ignorant and starstruck, he spoke with unforced charm and great clarity, never speaking to me in a low tone: how the plays were revealed in rehearsals, not planned in advance; how rehearsals must be a journey; how there was no definitive production; of magic, of instinct, of spectacle. He was by turns serious, mischievous and passionate.
Many years later, he became a friend, still offering me imperishable advice: “Nothing is achieved in theater that does not come from practice rather than theory”; “Never have a press night, freeze the work”; “Conducting is getting people on and off stage, like getting the orchestra on time.” His timing was always perfect: at the age of 20 he was directing Paul Scofield in the role of Hamlet in Birmingham, a year later The labors of love are lost in Stratford, then at the Royal Opera House where he invited Salvador Dalí to design a production of Salome. Alas, it was never staged: he required the Thames to be diverted so that an ocean liner could break through the back wall of the Covent Garden stage.
I’d lived outside London since the mid-1960s, so I missed Peter’s years of inquiry – using improvisation, sounds and rhythms rather than words, acting out nonsense lyrics – which to me, typically English empiricist, seemed impenetrable. But in 1970, when I saw his production of A A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it became clear that his experiments in the theatricality of the theater had revealed a world of wit and invention. The scenography was a large white box with two doors and a balcony above which was accessed by ladders and the fairies swung on the trapezoids, manipulating the action like not too diligent stagehands. There were no received ideas about theater or the supernatural. He embodied Peter’s maxim that ‘the theater becomes a deadly industry if an artist is not there to perform’.
Then, at the age of 45, he retired from the British theatre. My regret at his departure was mingled with both admiration and envy: he had escaped the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of the provincial sniper, the weariness of careerism, the British insular and terrestrial theater and the creeping infection of insecurity. He has made a disused music hall in Paris his theatrical home and his work has become an explicit search for meaning, a spiritual quest.
He undertook with a group of 15 actors a series of investigations into the nature of theater from a mountaintop in Persia to West African villages and California orchards. She was “exploring life beyond clichés”. She brought to her masterpiece, Theirahabharata, a trilogy adapted from the world’s longest narrative poem, the core of Hindu culture. Joined by an audience that had traveled as pilgrims from all over the country, I watched the production in a tram garage in Glasgow – a nine-hour story of a society on the verge of collapse. It ended, as the sun rose, with a vision of peace, harmony and forgiveness.
The production was performed with a few simple props and exquisite iconic costumes on a clay floor. It contained stage magic, ritual and psychological reality within a Shakespearean arc, vast sweeping battles following moments of intense intimacy. A serpent of fire came out of the darkness, dragging a dancer in her wake; a torchlight battle ended in a nuclear explosion; the arrows seemed to fly across the stage, the horses galloping. The staging had the brilliance and bravura that might have attracted attention had it not been the obvious consequence of trying to find the most expressive way of telling the story.
Peter was 92 the last time I saw him, having a chat together on stage at the Olivier. He was physically frail and when we went on stage he reached for my arm to guide him through the darkness offstage. As soon as the audience saw him, he stood up to applaud. He pulled away from my arm, straightened up, walked to the front of the stage and bowed. After our talk the audience asked questions: “Why will people pay a lot for a pair of shoes but refuse to pay much less for theater tickets?” To which he replied: “Shoes have not let people down over the centuries. The theater has. He was the exception to his rule.