Peter Brook: An appreciation

WITH the death of Peter Brook at the age of 97, an era in world theatre has come quietly to an end, writes Neil Wallace.

This great theatrical innovator – described by many as the greatest director of all time – transformed the way actors think, research, prepare, and perform. The simplicity and dazzling originality of the productions they created in his ceaseless search for theatrical “truth”, enthralled audiences throughout the globe.

Luckily for us, a brief but heady part of that search brought him and his inter-cultural company to Glasgow.

The young Brook, after experimenting with film at Oxford University, quickly established himself in the commercial theatre, chalking up remarkable box office successes in the West End, Paris and Broadway, and directing productions at Stratford.

The creation of the RSC in Stratford in 1962 was a turning point. Together with Charles Marowitz, Brook created the Theatre Of Cruelty company, in effect the R&D department of the RSC. This company foreshadowed his future: long periods of research and rehearsal; collective investigation of the actors’ craft; explorations of theatrical space, of where theatre should be made and seen.

His group staged three productions: King Lear, Marat/Sade and the anti-Vietnam war polemic, US. His crowning achievement at Stratford was the 1970 Midsummer Night’s Dream – a sensational white-box and trapeze staging that toured the world before a Broadway run. “Brook’s Dream” changed the staging of Shakespeare forever.

By 1970 it was clear Brook’s theatrical laboratory was financially unsustainable in the UK. Paris, and the promise of private and state funding, beckoned. He left Britain to embark on an adventure that would last over 50 years.

In 1974, he and collaborator Micheline Rozan rediscovered a dilapidated music hall close to the Gare du Nord – the Bouffes. Retaining many of its weather-beaten, fire damaged features, Brook staged Timon Of Athens for an astonished Paris public there.

An aesthetic, later central to the conversion of Glasgow’s Tramway, was born. Let the space, “marked by life” as Brook famously said, do the work. In this way he argued, by entering abandoned space, “the story has already begun”.

In 1985 Brook, together with collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, again made history with a nine-hour adaptation of the epic Indian poem The Mahabharata. The French language version premiered at the Boulbon Quarry, Avignon, and the clamour for an English-language version persuaded Brook to embark on a world tour.

At exactly this time Glasgow was preparing for its year as Cultural Capital Of Europe in 1990. The strategy included a curtain-raiser to coincide with the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. Bob Palmer (1990 director) and I were aware of the Mahabharata world tour and plans for a London staging.

After seeing an all-night marathon performance in an empty boat-shed in Zurich things moved very fast. Inspired by Zurich, we scoured the city for a similar empty space. With extraordinary foresight, the Glasgow City Council committed to cover most of the costs. Strathclyde Regional Council’s support followed.

Our city-wide search produced seven locations, most of them dodgy, to show Brook’s technical director Jean-Guy Lecat. The former Museum Of Transport in Albert Drive was an after-thought, but his eyes lit up: “remove these pillars, make a door there, build a wall here, cover the floor with dried clay, put in the seating and we can come".

On the same day our budgets were approved, the plans for London performances were cancelled. Glasgow would be bringing this great epic to the UK alone and presenting Brook’s work in the country for the first time in 14 years.

It was a monumental undertaking. Under Peter Searle’s guidance, the old tram depot was converted in under three months at a cost of £93,000. Brook would later tell a packed Glasgow press conference this was exactly what the refurbishment of the Bouffes du Nord had cost.

The 300 tons of wet Strathclyde clay stayed wet and had to be air-dried with gigantic space heaters. When the box office opened, we sold out the six-week run of 11 cycles of the Mahabharata in four hours (about 20 per cent of the tickets went to Londoners). During their stay individual company members shared their solo work with Mayfest audiences.

A unique resource had been created not just for future Brook productions, but for young and emerging artists in Scotland. The relationship with Brook continued, leading to performances of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Impressions de Pelleas, Oh les beux jours and The Man Who…

Brook’s visits were complemented by projects by 7:84 Theatre Co, Theatre Communicado, the Traverse, NVA, Cryptic and others.

Tramway and Glasgow became Brook’s British base. He loved the city, just as he loved the audiences. To have an international icon in our midst meant a lot to local makers; each visit brought contact with local artists.

When Tramway’s demolition seemed certain, he intervened. “It would be lunacy, complete lunacy, to tear this space down,” he told city officials. The day was won, and Tramway was added to the list of disused buildings in New York, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Barcelona once converted for his work, but now with a permanent artistic life.

This is also his legacy. Thousands of directors, performers, makers and, of course, millions of audience members still carry the memories, the inspiration, the light he gave them. In Tramway, the light is shining still.

l Rotterdam-based Neil Wallace is artistic director of the BIG SING festival and the production company Unusual Suspects.