Pioneer of experimental theater, first in England and then in France, the British director and screenwriter Peter Brook – who died at the age of 97 on Saturday 2 July in Paris, where he had settled in 1974 – was a complete showman who rightfully belongs to the European generation of theater reformers of the second half of the twentieth century, a director who has written many productions memorable, sometimes transferring them to the screen in full expressive autonomy.
His fame is linked, among other things, to the theatrical blockbuster “Il Mahabhàrata”, the culmination of a multidisciplinary work in directing, with which he demonstrated that even cinema and television can engage in a creative way with the myths of humanity , transforming the great Indian epic into an equally great popular spectacle.
Brook’s activity is part of that experimental context of the neo-avant-garde that has crossed the barriers between the arts, practicing an interaction between cinema, theater and television. Proponent of an acting that is the bearer of emotions and surprises, the great director has often made use of non-professional actors of different ethnic origins, adopting a working method in which the actions are improvised on the set or on the stage, beyond of the screenplay, while taking its cue from a subject that gives meaning to the story and which in many cases is borrowed from important literary or theatrical texts, or from materials of the mythological and cultural heritage of different spheres and origins. In Brook’s artistic practice, the anthropological perspective was translated into lived experience, into work experience, even before the multicultural fashions of the Eighties.
Born in London on March 21, 1925, Peter Brook made his film debut while completing his studies at Oxford, with “Sentimental Journey” (1943), a film without dialogue and starring non-professional actors recruited in pubs, in which sound is integrated the comment entry. Between 1944 and 1945 he made educational short films for the British army and at the same time began an intense theatrical activity, full of successes, which would culminate in the 1960s with the direction of the Royal Shakespeare Company, hired together with Peter Hall.
Brook established himself as an acute interpreter of William Shakespeare’s theater (“Love’s Pain Lost”, 1946; “King Lear”, 1962; “The Tempest”, 1968; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, 1970; “Antonio and Cleopatra “, 1978), assuming first the direction of London’s Royal Opera House (1947-50) and then from 1962 of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has added modern works and experimental works to the traditional repertoire, receiving in particular the indications of Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” (“Les paravents” by Jean Genet; 1963, “Marat-Sade”, 1964, and “L’istruttoria” , 1965, by Peter Weiss; “US”, 1966).
In 1970 he founded the Center international de création théâtrale in Paris, where, under the influence of Jerzy Grotowski and Julian Beck’s Living Theater, the possible theatrical applications of a non-significant language, improvised and maximally gestualized (“Orghast “, 1971;” Les Iks “, 1975;” Ubu roi “, 1977;” Mahābhārata “, 1985;” Woza Albert “, 1989, new staging of” Tempesta “, 1990;” Who is there “, 1995;” Sizwe Banzi est mort “, 2006).
Brook’s cinematographic activity, however, does not turn out to be a substitute for his theatrical one, even if he draws a fruitful nourishment from it. Outside the radicalism of experimental cinema, the director sees in the camera the possibility of presenting life as it happens. So, after “Il masnadiero” (1953), a cinematographic transposition of the famous theatrical text by John Gay, he created “Moderato cantabile – Storia di una stran amore” (1960), based on a novel by Marguerite Duras: in the film the dominant device is the word and the camera, fixed in front of the two protagonists (Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo), captures the emotions of the two actors, their real experience, letting things happen in front of it.
Particularly important are also the space and the choice of places, as in the following “The Lord of the Flies” (1963), shot on an island south of Puerto Rico, with a cast made up only of teenagers of different nationalities; based on the short story by William Golding, in which a group of English boys, abandoned on a desert island, try to set themselves the rules of survival, the film shows the cruel mechanisms that underlie human institutions (division into castes, formation of symbols and rites), revealing the other side of the myth of the ‘good savage’.
Antonin Artaud’s theatrical concepts and Brechtian teaching were perfectly combined in the staging of Peter Weiss’s play “Marat-Sade”. From this theatrical show, which had so much influence on the European scenes of those years, renewing the directing schemes, Brook drew the 1966 film of the same name, in which he deals with the theme of theater in the theater in an exemplary way, through the staging of death. of Marat created in the Charenton asylum by a group of sick people directed by De Sade; the egalitarian message of the revolutionary is contrasted with the radical individualism of the Divine Marquis, who assumes inequality as a natural fact and conceives liberation as a revolt against social and cultural conventions.
Brook’s strong political commitment was confirmed by the subsequent “Tell me lies” (1968), also shot along the lines of a theatrical staging of two years earlier, “US”, in which a documented denunciation of historical responsibilities develops. of the US government in the Vietnam War, through the assembly of different materials, such as stock images, interviews with writers, students, members of Parliament, leaders of Black Power. After “King Lear” (1970), a television adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, set in the far north of Yutland, where castles, roads were purposely built, and a cast of farmers and fishermen recruited, in the early 1970s Brook devoted himself to anthropological documentary, narrating the journeys made in Iran (“Orghast”, 1971) and in Africa, with his theater company, in search of the common bases of all cultures. He returned to fictional cinema in 1978 with “Encounters with remarkable men”, a story taken from the book by Georges Ivanovic Gurdjieff, about the years of spiritual apprenticeship in Central Asia of a singular figure of orientalizing mystic.
Since the formation of the Center International de Création Théâtrale, Brook’s cinematographic activity has become even more closely integrated with theatrical practice. With “La tragédie de Carmen” (1983) she created, within the Bouffes du Nord theater, three different film versions of the same play, one for each of the three interpreters who alternated in the role of the protagonist, transforming the entire theater space – stage, stairs, balconies, interior rooms – in a single stage space.
In 1989 with “The Mahabharata” he offered a representation of remarkable visual strength of the vast epic poem, a veritable literary monument of ancient Indian culture. In 2001 you made a film version of the extraordinary multi-ethnic play “Hamlet”, which had also made its debut the previous year at the Bouffes du Nord theater. In the film “Riccardo III – Un uomo, un re” (1996) by Al Pacino he plays himself.
not the important texts on the theater: “The theater and its space” (Feltrinelli, 1968; re-proposed with the title “Lo space empty” by Bulzoni in 1998); “The moving point” (Ubulibri, 1988), “The open door” (Anabasi, 1994; Einaudi, 2005). In addition to the autobiographical book “The threads of time: memories of a life” (Feltrinelli, 2001), in Italian appeared “My Shakespeare” (Ubulibri, 2002), “Forget Shakespeare” (Editor’s Guide, 2005), “Together with Grotowski “(RueBallu Edizioni, 2011).
Numerous honors and awards received by Peter Brook: Commander of the Order of the British Empire, member of the Order of Companions of Honor, Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy, Commander of the Order of the Legion of Honor, Imperial Premium , Nonino Prize “To a Master of our time”, Princess of Asturias Prize for art.
(from Paolo Martini)
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