A global seeker, an artistic explorer, a director and writer whose influence on modern theater is profound and pervasive, Peter Brook at age 88 is still embarking on creative adventures.
At the time of our February phone interview, Brook was in New York launching the U.S. tour of “The Suit,” an acclaimed piece about betrayal, retribution and forgiveness in apartheid-era South Africa. Based on a novella by noted South African writer Can Themba, “The Suit” opens Wednesday, March 19, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it runs through Sunday, April 6.
The small cast one-act, termed “an exquisite miniature” by one London critic, is taken from a celebrated story by the late Themba, whose frank tales of black township life were banned by the South African government. It is the fable of a Sophiatown couple whose marriage fractures when the man discovers his wife’s affair, and a suit her lover left behind.
“It is a well-known story, the oldest story, going back to Adam and Eve, about men and women,” explained Brook. “But Themba found a new twist, to come up with this variant. It shows how under terrible oppression the official and political can have such a big impact on one’s personal relationships.”
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Brook is also busy staging “The Valley of Astonishment,” which debuts this spring at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nordin Paris, where his International Centre for Theatre Research is quartered. The piece caps off a trilogy of plays about “the neurology of the brain, and how it affects human behavior.”
As for his enviable vitality at such an advanced age, Brook said, “What invigorates us all is the same thing. It is life, the flow of life. We are all instruments of it.”
He adds, “I have only one theme in relation to life, and it is gratitude. I can take no credit, but can only be grateful for what’s come my way.”
Brook’s prolific theatrical life began in the 1940s, when the Oxford grad and son of Jewish Latvian immigrants won praise for his direction for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House.
He evolved into a theatrical maverick, whose brief was to strip away the encrusted artifice of conventional classical theater and reveal a work’s essence. As articulated in his seminal 1972 book “The Empty Space,” Brook sought a simplicity of intensity, a peak immediacy, a theatrical communion that spoke to the times, yet was universal.
Though he’s been derisively dubbed a “sacred cow” by some new envelope-pushers of the British stage, they tend to take for granted techniques labeled radical when Brook introduced them.
Referring to his recent book on directing Shakespeare (“The Quality of Mercy”), Brook told me, “The idea is not to start work on a play with technical, old-fashioned, academic analysis. It starts with studying and searching, improvising, finding the meaning, in general and from moment to moment, until each word reveals its meaning.”
In league with Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett and other theater visionaries, Brook shifted modern drama away from the illusion of detailed realism. Performed on minimal sets, the product of rigorous workshops and collaboration, his artistry champions a keen intimacy between performer and audience — whether in a modern classic like “Marat/Sade”; Brook’s blistering film version of “The Lord of the Flies”; or his stark “Carmen.”
What spurred Brook’s approach? “I was very much influenced when I was younger and started working on classics, by hearing actors and directors take delight in the artificial, the stylistic.
“I thought, who the hell cares about the style? I have never known a great writer who thought about style. Style is the end product. What we’re always trying to find is the root of a work, the sound and the gesture in the meaning.” (A new film, “Peter Brook: The Tightrope,” shows him in rehearsal.)
Estranged from conventional drama, Brook founded his theatrical center in Paris at the venerable Bouffes du Nord. In 1972, he took a diverse international ensemble (including the young Helen Mirren) on a three-month research trek through Africa. En route, the troupe stopped in small villages to give performances.
This remarkable experiment and other travels led to neo-mythic, cross-cultural works like “The Mahabharata,” a marathon interpretation of a holy Indian text (which I was lucky to see in its 1987 U.S. debut in Los Angeles), and an elegant, radically distilled “Tragedy of Hamlet” (which had its North American debut at Seattle Rep in 2001).
“The Suit” reflects Brook’s long fascination with Africa. “When I made my first trip to South Africa,” he recalled, “and had a strong connection with Barney Simon, a very courageous and imaginative director.
“His theater in Johannesburg, for complicated and idiotic reasons, had to be in a market because it was one of the few places the races could mix under apartheid. He brilliantly thought, if I start a theater in the middle of a market, they can’t stop us from using black and white actors, in front of (mixed) audiences.”
Such Market shows as “The Island” and “Sizwe Bansi is Dead,” a pair of searing one-acts cowritten by black actors Winston Ntshona, John Kani and white playwright Athol Fugard, helped to “put us ardently on the side of the anti-apartheid movement,” said Brook.
“We did a South African season at Bouffes du Nord. Then I read that the Market was doing a play called ‘The Suit.’ So we got a copy, and very rapidly my collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and I adapted it into French. It had a very big impact at our theater, and on tour.
But Brook was not satisfied: “It wasn’t mature, it wasn’t ready. Like with many projects, we waited for the right moment to return to it. We wanted to do it for the English-speaking audience, and make it more universal.
“ ‘The Suit’ (plays here in English) is set in a specific place and time, but it really could have happened any place in the world where people live under the iron fist of oppression. Like everything in theater, it had to have a resonance in the moment — which it has today with Syria, Egypt, Yemen, so many [repressive] places.”
The current version premiered in Europe with the untrained but “wonderful” young actress Nonhlanhla Kheswa as the wife. On the U.S. tour, she shares the stage with new cast members from London and New York.
To refresh the musical score, Brook turned to composer Franck Krawczyk. “Earlier we used all South African music,” said Brook. “Franck devised pieces of classical music that fit in — pieces of Schubert, Bach, which correspond closely to the emotions in the story.”
Most of the music is live, as Brook prefers, and “there isn’t a break between musicians and actors. They’re all telling the same story.”
Though some of his shows are captured on film, the living stage is the medium Brook has influenced immeasurably. But he refuses to prognosticate on its future.
“When people ask me about it, I just say, ‘No comment,’” he states firmly.
But does he believe live drama can persist in our digitial-electronic epoch?
Here, Brook does not hesitate. “If just one person somewhere has the need to express something to even one other person by playing it out, then theater exists.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com