Peter Brook will celebrate his 86th birthday in March with a Barbican production. The most original of theatrical titans tells Michael Coveney why the time for banging the drum is overby Michael Coveney / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Kind of magic: Peter Brook’s staging of Une Flûte Enchantée, “a summation of his career”
Peter Brook, now aged 85 and still working, is the most admired and influential theatre director of our time. He was a 22-year-old wunderkind when he came down from Oxford and became director of productions at the Royal Opera House, persuading Salvador Dalí to design Richard Strauss’s Salomé for him. Landmark productions at the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company followed in the 1960s: Paul Scofield in a grainy, granite, emphatically Beckettian King Lear in 1962 that fired an entire generation’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare; Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade in 1964, with a cast including Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson and Patrick Magee, which set new standards of ensemble work and revolutionary fervour in the British theatre; his famous white-box gymnasium production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970).
There were films, too, including his 1963 anthropological adaptation of Lord of the Flies. In 1974, he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, having created two experimental epics, first performed in Iran and Africa: Orghast (1971), with a “new language” text by Ted Hughes, and The Conference of the Birds (1972). The centre is based in a dilapidated but singularly atmospheric old music hall, the Bouffes du Nord. From there, Brook has continued to this day to work on productions that travel the world.
In mid-2010, I went to Paris to see the solo show, Warum Warum, which Brook directed for one of his regular collaborators, the German actor Miriam Goldschmidt. We met afterwards for dinner in the Bouffes du Nord café. He was soon to start rehearsals for a stripped-down production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute—following similar reductive treatments of Carmen and Pelléas and Mélisande—which comes to the Barbican in London in March. In November, I returned to Paris to see The Magic Flute ahead of its London run.
In many ways, Une Flûte Enchantée, as the Paris production was called (it’s sung in German and spoken in French, and will be presented at the Barbican with surtitles), is a final staging post on Brook’s lifelong journey of refinement and simplification—a summation of his career and, perhaps, a starting point for a debate about its significance. The two-and-a-half hours of Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Shikaneder are reduced to 95 minutes. The pantomime and fairytale elements of the story are excised. The newly arranged score is performed…