Theatre interview: Peter Brook on breaking down barriers at the Edinburgh International Festival

As acclaimed director Peter Brook prepares to lead his Paris-based company on their first Festival residency, he tells Joyce McMillan why his idealism about what theatre can accomplish has remained undimmed over the decades

Peter Brook PIC: P Victor/MAXPPP
Peter Brook PIC: P Victor/MAXPPP

It was in 1968 – the year of social revolution across Europe and America – that Peter Brook published The Empty Space, a book that was influential in changing the face of theatre across Britain, and far beyond. Until then, according to Brook, far too much of what was occupying the stage, in London and elsewhere, was what he called “deadly theatre” – conventional, stifling, unoriginal, and a waste of time. And in The Empty Space he set out a manifesto in four vivid chapters, envisaging a theatre that would be not “deadly”, but holy, rough and immediate, full of the energy of the moment and of that sense of the sacred that western culture seemed to be losing; and as economical and unfussy in its means of expression as the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre” first described in that same year of turmoil and hope.

When The Empty Space was published, Brook was already in his forties, and perhaps the most successful British theatre director of his generation. Born in Chiswick in 1925, he had been acclaimed for his work at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House, and in 1970 went on to direct a legendary RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – on an all-white set, with trapezes – of which those who saw it still speak with awe, almost 50 years on.

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By the early 1970s, though, his quest for that holy roughness and immediacy in theatre had led him to Paris, where he founded his International Centre for Theatre Research, travelling far and wide, particularly in Asia and North Africa, in search of rituals that might reconnect theatre makers and audiences with a more powerful and significant kind of performance, linked to community and ritual. And in 1974, in an old, dilapidated music-hall in Paris called the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, he found the home that would help to inspire and shape that work for the next four decades, and still does today.

“The whole meaning of the work of the International Centre for Theatre Research was for us to go across all the barriers that the world is made of,” says Brook. “That matters more than ever today, to go across all barriers of race, religion, country.” And this year, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord makes its first ever appearance as a resident company at the Edinburgh International Festival, bringing three shows that include Peter Brook’s own most recent production, The Prisoner, first seen in Paris earlier this year.

It’s not the first time that Brook and the Bouffes du Nord company have played a key role in a major Scottish cultural event, of course. In 1988, Brook’s mighty nine-hour epic The Mahabharata, based on the founding text of Hindu theology and culture, was the first show ever seen at the Tramway in Glasgow, in the run-up to the city’s year as European City of Culture in 1990; and the Bouffes du Nord team played a key role in shaping the magnificent open space that became Tramway 1, creating the roughly-textured earth-red wall at the back of the playing area. The company returned in 1990 with their beautiful African-inflected version of Shakespeare’s Tempest, attracting packed audiences, and sending waves of inspiration, revelation and ambition through a Scottish cultural scene that was profoundly changed by the events around 1990, of which Brook’s presence in Glasgow became an important symbol.

Throughout his working life since 1974, though, Brook has remained true to his search for the holy, the rough, the immediate, and for theatre that can cross cultural boundaries; and the same simple, vivid aesthetic – featuring earth, sky, and human figures caught between them – can be seen in both The Mahabharata and The Prisoner, which is based on a scene Brook witnessed in Afghanistan in the 1970s.

“It started with a real-life story that I lived myself, about 40 years ago,” says Brook, who is now 93, but still creating new work. “In Afghanistan, I saw a man sitting in front of a prison, staring at it; he had been condemned to sit there for the whole of his sentence, not inside the prison, but outside it. The look in his eyes was so strong that it has stayed with me, and has made me question who he was, why he was there, and what he was doing. I never found out what he had done and what his crime was. I didn’t know how this story ended. However, the look in this man’s eyes, and the questions surrounding his situation, led me to feel that I couldn’t leave this story, because it doesn’t leave me.”

In Edinburgh, the Bouffes du Nord season will also include La Maladie de la mort, Katie Mitchell’s new staging was of a story by Marguerite Duras, and Robert Carsen and Ian Burton’s new version of The Beggar’s Opera; both are produced by alliances of a dozen international co-producers.

Brook, though, remains wedded to his code of simplicity, and to the kind of casting that reflects a world no longer dominated by the white European culture in which he grew up. The Prisoner features actors born in Sri Lanka, Rwanda and England, among other countries; and even in an age when some critics tend to frame Brook’s intense exploration of non-European cultures as just another way of imposing western needs and stereotypes on people who have their own story to tell, Brook himself is still passionate about the radical purpose with which he set out almost half a century ago. For 40 years now, Brook’s cast-lists have had that same multicultural and cross-cultural range – African, Arab, Asian, French – that the world now celebrates in this year’s victorious French football team; and that is exactly as he wants it to be.

“When we started with Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord,” he says, “we wanted to show that it’s possible to go through boundaries. We made our groups international. People of different groups, languages, formations and artist views came together to work together and love each other, and for the work to be put in front of an audience.

“So audiences see people working for themselves and working together. The whole of theatre is about being together; and that is the meaning of the Edinburgh Festival, too.”

The Prisoner, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 22-26 August, 0131-473 2000/