St John's Wood theatre critic pays tribute to Peter Brook

British theatre director Peter Brook has died aged 97

British theatre director Peter Brook has died aged 97 - Credit: Nick Flintoff

British theatre and film director Peter Brook died aged 97, in France, on July 2. St John's Wood theatre critic and producer Blanche Marvin MBE writes on the legacy of Peter Brook and the Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards.

There has been endless attention and obituaries in all the news media over Peter Brook’s death...far more than when he was alive.

The late Peter Brook with Blanche Marvin MBE

The late Peter Brook with Blanche Marvin MBE - Credit: Nick Flintoff

In all of these obituaries none of the critics, including the ones who were part of the team that helped its functioning, mentioned the Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards, started in 1998,  when the Arts Council suddenly changed its policy from subsidising the fringe theatres, no matter the size of attendance.

They then demanded a track record. I had a small department at the Arts Council where I was discovering new writers, archiving and placing the plays in those fringe theatres.

This sudden change of policy left me bereft……I then began to think of a means of continuing this important programme on my own.

Deeply believing that Peter Brook had not only changed the world of William Shakespeare with Midsummers Night’s Dream, but also carried through and opened the horizons of the profound concept of the French cave theatres.

Paris had just been freed of the German occupation, and with little money opened any available space to perform and express that existential period via its brilliant writers which influenced world theatre.

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The Hamburg Opera House’s use of its space for improvised new plays as well as the classics bore its influence upon him.  

Peter Brook embodied the concept that buildings do not make theatre but an empty space with an actor who had something to say, whether it be Shakespeare or current contemporary plays, made theatre.

That concept opened theatre to and from the world. There was no need for huge sums of monies or buildings, but the will and drive of the theatre-makers to express the will of the people in whatever possible space in postwar Britain took over..

But years passed and Peter Brook left England to create his theatre in France (Bouffe du Nord) from where he could travel world-wide with those great productions of the Mahabharata  (the classic Indian myths).

He collaborated with Jeanjean-Claude Carrier which projected its message mostly through image and gesture, including Conference of the Birds (based on 12th century Persian poem) and Tierno Bokar, a bio-drama about a Malian Sufi.

Brook continued his work at the Bouffes du Nord and toured round the world. He spent little time in England and only some time in Scotland.

So I created the Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards in 1998. It was the work of these Awards that reawakened the impact of Brook’s concepts.

The Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards opened doors and helped to legitimatise fringe theatre; its team of leading critics brought an awareness, recognition and legitimacy to the writers and work of these empty-space theatres.

It also brought back Peter Brook, himself, to England.

Undated handout photo issued by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) of theatre and film director Pet

Undated handout photo issued by the Royal Shakespeare Company of theatre and film director Peter Brook who has died at the age of 97. - Credit: PA

We ended  in 2017 after 28  years of innovative work in bringing the fringe into the main stream.

But times change, our premise was redundant, and the concept of awards became so abused, it lost its real impact.

Our awards had a very particular meaning and service; it came to its natural end.  But it brought Peter Brook back to London with his varied productions at the Young Vic under the hand of David Lan and at the National Theatre under the directorship of Rufus Norris.

Peter Brook’s  list of contemporary plays that were performed in France and toured, including London, were a far cry from Shakespeare (although Peter directed his own intimate version of The Tempest): Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, The Valley of Astonishment.

And there was that period when Samuel Beckett and the French Antonin Artaud in his “theatre of cruelty” influenced Brook’s Marat/Sade in 1964, while the German writer Peter Weiss influenced US in 1966, an improvised anti-war play on the Vietnam war.

In addition his fable plays like The Suit or The Prisoner emphasised his shaman side rather than Shakespeare, not to mention his books The Tip of the Tongue (describing the potency of words),  Playing by Ear (the importance of music), The Quality of Mercy (an insight into Shakespeare), or his workshops and consultations with directors.

He thought in depth, taught and directed with grace, and was open to the constancy of change.

We shall not see his like again. Goodnight, sweet Prince, and may the flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Visit www.blanchemarvin.com/