Peter Brook, visionary theater director, dies aged 97

Oscar Holland, CNN

Director Peter Brook, whose groundbreaking stage productions transformed 20th-century theater, has died at the age of 97, according to his publisher Nick Hern Books.

“We are honored to have been Peter’s publishers for 20 years and to share his wisdom and insights with the world,” the a expression posted by the publisher on Twitter on Sunday. “He leaves behind an incredible artistic legacy.”

His children Simon and Irina, who are both also directors, confirmed his death via social media with the former describe himself as “the luckiest man in the world to have had such an amazing and loving father”. No one stated how or where their father had died.

Born in London in 1925, Brook made his directorial debut in the early 1940s before directing a rendition of Shakespeare’s King John in Birmingham, England. After staging avant-garde works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau, he directed a number of critically acclaimed Shakespearean productions starring some of the greats of the era – from a 1955 version of Hamlet starring Paul Scofield to a European tour of “Titus Andronicus” with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Brook gained a reputation for breaking with convention during a long association with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Among his best-known productions was a 1970 Tony Award-winning staging of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – starring Frances de la Tour, Ben Kingsley and later Patrick Stewart – which boldly rejected the classic interpretations of the time with minimalist staging, sexual undercurrents and contemporary costumes, span the cultures.

In doing so, Brook “completely reset what it meant to bring Shakespeare alive for a contemporary audience,” wrote the RSC in a tribute posted to its website on Sunday.

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The production, often referred to simply as “Peter Brooks’ dream,” “continues to make a serious impact on theater artists today,” the organization added.

In addition to works by the English playwright, Brook directed US, a scathing critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and a Tony Award-winning rendition of German playwright Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade while at the RSC. Brook later directed an acclaimed 1967 film – one of over a dozen films he produced during his lifetime, including versions of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and a theatrical adaptation of King Lear.

In 1970 Brook moved to France and took over the management of the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris. There he not only supervised French-language interpretations of Shakespeare, but also works by writers, from the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov to the Senegalese poet Birago Diop.

The Bouffes du Nord was also home to Brooks International Center for Theater Research, a group of actors, directors and others who traveled the world staging plays and exploring elements of storytelling that might transcend culture. The group famously produced a nine-hour version of the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, which Brook later adapted into a five-hour film of the same name.

In his later years, Brook continued to bring stories from around the world to his stages, telling the life story of Sufi sage Tierno Bokar and chronicling the struggles of black South Africans during apartheid in his adaptation of Can Themba’s The Suit.

He was also acclaimed for taking his performances beyond the confines of theatres. His troupe staged productions everywhere from derelict buildings to tribal villages while touring the developing world.

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With this approach, Brook placed theater “at the center of the common human experience,” British historian Sir Simon Schama wrote on Twitter on Sunday. As a result, “theater was no longer a specific type of building with a stage but, he said, could take place in any empty space,” Schama added.

Other tributes have been flooded on social media from across the art world and beyond. Rufus Norris, director and joint managing director of the British National Theatre, said in a expression that Brook “was the singular theatrical practitioner of the last century, both fearless and peerless in his investigation of the breadth and depth of form”.

Oliver Mears, now opera director at the British Royal Opera described him as “not only a visionary opera and theater practitioner, but also a pioneering author and film director”. Actor Antonio Banderas said that Brook “leaves an unforgettable way of telling the world around us”.

Brook was married to actress Natasha Parry from 1951 until her death in 2015.

He was among the most decorated figures in theater, winning not only the Tony Awards mentioned above, but also an Emmy, an International Emmy, the Prix Italia and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale. He was made Commander of the French Legion of Honor in 2013 and has served as Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Companion of Honor in the United Kingdom.

Caption above: Peter Brook, pictured in Paris in 2011.

The CNN Wire
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