TO GET to Peter Brook's office, you come in off a grimy Parisian street at the back of the Gare du Nord, head along a nondescript corridor, cut across the stage of the Bouffes du Nord – half faded glamour, half rough-and-ready empty space – before climbing a staircase that is open to the crisp December air, as if you were approaching a fairytale turret.
• Malika Sarabhai in Brook's Glasgow theatre production of Indian epic The Mahabharata, in April 1988. Picture: TSPL
The room itself is rather like one of the great theatre director's productions – spare, elemental, stripped to the essentials and on another plane. There is a square table on a mat on a bare floor, a couple of family photos, an African souvenir and there, sitting calm and focused at the table, Brook himself, at 84, his blue eyes sparkling with the same intelligence of mind and generosity of spirit that has characterised his work since he burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old graduate directing Shakespeare, Shaw and Ibsen for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Unsurprisingly, he is looking a little more delicate than when he first arrived in Glasgow in 1988 at the invitation of Bob Palmer and Neil Wallace, who wanted his epic nine-hour production of The Mahabharata to presage the city's Year of Culture in 1990. It was an invitation that not only brought the Tramway into being – a brick wall built specially to emulate the old proscenium arch of the Bouffes du Nord – but also led to return visits with La Tempte, The Man Who … , La Tragdie de Carmen and Impressions de Pellas.
What is surprising, however, is just how well Brook has weathered. He makes the occasional remark about the day when age will force him to stop, but it is clear he is not going to retire without a struggle. Squeezing half of an hour for an interview into what is obviously a busy day, he has lost no energy in his dedication to his work and none of his lucidity when it comes to answering questions. A typical Brook reply is considered, insightful, grammatically perfect and anything up to ten minutes long.
His latest production, a play called 11 and 12 that visits the Tramway as part of a UK tour, is based on The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar by the African writer Amadou Hampat B. It is a true story set in French-occupied Mali about Bokar, a Sufi master who lived from 1875 to 1939.
Legend had it that a century earlier, some members of the Tidjani Sufi order had been saying their special prayer, the Pearl of Perfection, as part of their morning ritual. The tradition was to repeat the prayer 11 times after which their master, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tijani, would bless them. But on this occasion, the Sheikh arrived late. In order not to embarrass him, they said the prayer one more time. From then on until his death two years later, he would always wait until the 12th recitation before giving his blessing. He gave no explanation, but a new tradition was born.
This innocent event would go on to tear families apart. Factions formed, as the supporters of 11 prayers distanced themselves from those who had changed to 12. There was a campaign to return to the older tradition, which some regarded as more pure, not least because the French authorities had sided with the 12 supporters, who were in the majority, believing the 11s to be secretly in league against them. In the years after 1910, tribal conflicted escalated.
"The 12 were well in with the French and the French exploited it and said, 'Well, these are our friends, so of course the others must be attacked because they are our enemies,'" says Brook. "All that polarising led to something which came all the way through to Ptain, Vichy and eventually to General de Gaulle. All because of this man arriving late for prayer. This seemed to me a hell of a story."
What interests Brook, however, is less the violence than the attempts between the two masters, Tierno Bokar and Cherif Hamallah, to live a life of tolerance despite the bloodshed around them. Bokar, having been brought up in the 12 camp, was persuaded by the younger Hamallah to adopt the 11. By changing sides, he knew he was making a terrible sacrifice.
"The Islam that he taught was a religion of tolerance, of non-violence, of openness to all the other religions, of refusal of any dogma," he says. "This seemed to me to be a very remarkable figure. His early life was the old traditional Africa. He had round him a small community, a compound, which was like a little island, where he could arrange a happy, closely-knit life.
"But you can never isolate yourself from the world and gradually the pressures of the world entered and he had to find his way of standing firm for his beliefs and principles. This is where I began to feel the dramatic life."
Two months later, Brook is centre stage at London's Barbican theatre, surrounded by the multinational cast of 11 and 12. He is in an upright chair and the actors' artful arrangement on the stage around him only adds to the guru-like image he says he detests. They are there for a post-show discussion, but two things are unusual. The first is that the entire audience – stalls, balconies, the lot – has stayed behind to hear him speak. The second is that Brook has decided against taking questions, preferring to give an impromptu speech-cum-workshop instead.
"Let's do something together: just point," he instructs us and there is the strangest sensation as 1,000 people stand and move as one, all directing fingers towards him.
His argument is on the esoteric side, but he wants to give us an awareness of space and what lies between the words and the musical notes. "We're delighted at the warmth that's exchanged the moment there is sound, but there's something further, which is the most precious thing of all with a shared experience when, without forcing it, silence arrives," he says. "Silence is not a dead, empty, clinical word. When it is there, we're in it and it's full of life."
Back in Paris I ask Brook, the author of the seminal 1968 manifesto The Empty Space, how he has avoided the complacency of middle age. "One of the best lines I know is the last line of an obscure play by a German writer – I think it's Hebbel," says Brook, still able to recall a one-off reading of a play called Maria Magdalena when he was studying German at university. "It was a completely naturalistic play about a middle-aged father who gradually begins to learn about life. His daughter commits suicide and all these terrible things. The last line is all I remember: it's this man alone on the stage saying, 'I don't understand the world any more.'"
So does Brook wake up in the morning and say he doesn't understand the world any more? "Yes," he replies with a beatific grin. "Not only in the morning, but midday as well."
• 11 and 12 is at Tramway, Glasgow, 30 March until 3 April.