Peter Brook, who has sadly died at the age of 97, was one of the most influential and important figures in twentieth-century theatre – described by the Guardian as ‘one of theatre’s most visionary and influential thinkers’. The New York Times called him ‘a director of scale and humanity, who left an indelible mark’.
Brook’s long and extraordinary career was filled with remarkable achievements, including productions of Titus Andronicus (1955) with Laurence Olivier, King Lear (1962) with Paul Scofield, and The Marat/Sade (1964) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), both for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Moving to Paris in the 1970s, he established the International Centre for Theatre Research and the International Centre for Theatre Creation, producing events which pushed at the boundaries of theatre – such as his legendary adaptation of epic Indian poem The Mahabharata (1985) – and continued to direct as recently as 2019.
Brook was also a celebrated writer about theatre. NHB have been proud to be Brook’s publisher for the past twenty years, releasing new books such as The Quality of Mercy and Tip of the Tongue, plus the first-ever ebook and audiobook editions of his seminal The Empty Space.
Here, we’re paying tribute to a much-loved and respected NHB author with an extract from The Quality of Mercy, focusing on the story behind one of Brook’s first-ever productions – but first, NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own decades-long relationship with his ‘old old friend’…
Peter Brook was responsible for my getting booed at the National Theatre. I was chairing a Q&A on the occasion of the publication of The Shifting Point [in 1988] and had had to call time on a very rich session. The audience, hungry for more, vented their disapproval – very loudly. It was like that whenever I accompanied Peter on a book tour. It was like being with a rock star: everyone wanted a piece of him. And rightly so, of course. Though small in stature, he was a giant in the world of theatre.
The Shifting Point was only his second book, some twenty years after his groundbreaking The Empty Space. So new was he to the business of publication that he got a fit of the giggles when I first sat him down in a bookshop to sign copies. He soon got the hang, recognising the commercial value of ‘author appearances’, and was still valiantly signing copies of his last book though nearly blind by then.
We resumed our author/publisher relationship with Evoking Shakespeare, which arrived unheralded but with a handwritten note: ‘I don’t suppose you’d be interested in publishing this – it’s very short!’ I was indeed interested, and there followed in due course three more books, all subtitled ‘Reflections’: The Quality of Mercy (on Shakespeare), Tip of the Tongue (on language and meaning) and Playing by Ear (on sound and music). Also two of his last playscripts, Battlefield and The Prisoner.
As an author and a man, Peter was always the soul of kindness and generosity. On meeting – and dining with – my wife for the first time, he inscribed her copy of his latest book: ‘To my new old friend’… I shall really miss my old old friend.
This is an edited extract from The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook.
It was not easy to leave England just after the war, especially as one needed a special permit to carry the tiniest allowance of cash that even the simplest travel needed.
I had just done my first production, Love’s Labour’s Lost at Stratford [in 1946], and was preparing to follow it with a Romeo and Juliet which I wanted to be young and full of fire. In those days, it was an accepted legend in the English theatre that only a mature actress in her forties could attempt to play Juliet. I hoped to smash this tradition by casting two very young actors as the star−crossed lovers. Above all, to get them to speak their lines with their own sense of truth. This meant being free from the established rules of verse-speaking.
My real interest was to discover the climate of the play, so my first trip was to Tangier to get a direct taste of the dust and blazing heat out of which fights and passions arise. This was an exciting revelation. The story did not belong to the polite world of Stratford and the genteel West End plays.
Next, another first. To Italy. This meant a beeline to Verona.
Despite the charm of any Italian small town, the comic side prevailed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘the commercial side’. As a child, I had been taken to Lourdes. This had left a distasteful memory of how the young Saint Bernadette was being exploited. In the narrow passage leading to the shrine, there were rows of shops each claiming to be more authentic than its neighbour and proclaiming ‘Founded by the true family of Bernadette’ or ‘We are direct descendants of Bernadette’. In Verona, it was very similar. Every corner struggled to exploit Romeo and Juliet – ‘Here is the Capulet residence’, ‘This is where the Nurse went to market’, ‘Welcome to the fencing academy where the Montagues learned to use their swords’, and ‘Visit the exact spot where Mercutio died.’
One beautiful house had a sign saying ‘Birthplace of Juliet’. I went in. It was lunchtime. I was alone, but for a very distinguished elderly Italian who was my guide. His speech was beautifully delivered as he followed me from room to room. Juliet’s bed, the closet where the Nurse slept, the famous balcony, the parents’ wing where the family dined. And then down a narrow stone stair into the cellar. Here my guide pointed to a large stone slab! ‘This is where they brought Juliet’s corpse; it was through this narrow opening that Romeo came – you can imagine the painful sight that confronted him – his lifeless bride. He clasped her in his arms.’
The guide leaned respectfully across the cold slab. ‘We have here a dagger – the actual one – and, after kissing her – ’ the guide mimed the action – ‘and taking the poison from her lips, Romeo took his own life.’
It was a fine performance, one he clearly repeated day after day. He then led me up the stairs to the front door. I was so struck by his well-schooled intelligence that I could not restrain myself. ‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘you are such an educated person. How can you bear day after day to tell these tales as though you believe them – when you know they haven’t the least root in truth? In England,’ I said, ‘we all know there were no such persons as Romeo and Juliet.’
He paused. Then with exquisite courtesy he replied, ‘Yes, indeed, it’s true. And here in Verona we all know there was no such person as Shakespeare.’
* * *
I returned to England. The journeys were over, and the practical work on Romeo and Juliet began. I had two marvellous collaborators: Rolf Gérard, who would become my close friend and designer over many years; and an outstanding Catalan−Swiss composer, Roberto Gerhard, who had just made a striking debut with a score for a radio version of Don Quixote. Both at once felt the heat and passion of the play. The set that gradually arose was little more than a blazing orange stage cloth, like a bullring.
Together, with a very dynamic instructor, we plunged into rehearsal with our young cast, who were delighted to begin the day with dangerous rapier fights. We made many mistakes and learned many lessons, but when the first night came, the play unfolded to the Stratford audience on the hot orange stage. The audience were dismayed and taken aback. I was attacked for ruining the poetry and wasn’t invited back for many years.
A few days after the opening, the theatre had arranged a public question-and-answer session. When I arrived backstage, I was met by an anxious stage manager. ‘I must warn you,’ he said. ‘You’re in trouble. Prepare for the worst.’ I stepped into the arena. The good and loyal Stratford audience was there. A long silence was broken by a lady rising to her feet, clearly trembling with indignation.
‘I would like Mr Brook to explain to us why, at the opening night of Romeo and Juliet in the Memorial Theatre, there was no light – in the ladies’ cloakroom!’
This got a laugh, but the discussion was heated. And inevitably the press was damning. However, I was already beginning to discover that while praise is for a moment reassuring, the valuable criticisms are the ones that are clearly from an unbiased and intelligent mind. They make one think.
Despite the inevitable disappointment, gradually I saw all that Romeo lacked. There was plenty of fire, colour and energy – which brought us a small minority of enthusiasts. But what was missing was an overall tempo, an irresistible pulse to lead from one scene to another. I had not yet learned that this was the basis of all Elizabethan theatre, and so began a long period of discovery. The theatre of the day, based on well-made West End plays, with their two intervals, had long lost all contact with the relentless Elizabethan rhythm. Each scene had to lead to another, never letting the audience go. Each scene had to be a stepping-stone for the next – there were no curtain breaks and pauses; no new scenery to get accustomed to. And not only did this demand a constant moving forward, it also made contrasts, unexpected changes of rhythm, tones, levels of intensity. In this Romeo I had worked scene by scene, each with its beginning, middle and end.
The big revelation came later when working in opera. In music, I saw that a series of notes is a world of infinitely tiny details which only exist because they are part of a phrase. A phrase in turn is inseparable from a driving forwards. Just as in a speech, a phrase is a thought that prepares and leads on to the next one. Only an insufferable bore goes on repeating a phrase long after we have got its meaning. A play of Shakespeare’s must be played as one great sinuous phrase, never ending before the very end.
When after two years of opera I returned to Stratford to direct Measure for Measure, I found that the immersion in music had brought me a new awareness of tempo and phrasing.
There’s an old cliché that Shakespeare could easily have written film scripts. Indeed, when a film is placed in the projector – to use the out-of-date jargon of the day – and the spools begin to turn, there is a movement, and with it the interest of the viewer is held. This has to be maintained till the end of the last shot. It applies to every category: art film, thriller, Western. They all were called ‘movies’. This led to the need to be free of the locked−in nature of the scenery that seemed so necessary at the time.
I was only asked back to Stratford when the direction changed many seasons later. This exile was clearly a stroke of fortune, as my approach had been transformed by so many experiences.
All of us at Nick Hern Books are saddened by the death of Peter Brook, at the age of 97. We’re honoured to have had the opportunity to share his wisdom and insights with the world. He leaves behind an incredible artistic legacy. RIP.
Photograph of Peter Brook by Régis d’Audeville.