I was 19 when I saw Peter Brook’s production of King Lear in 1962 and I felt like Berlioz seeing Hamlet: “The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art. I saw, I understood, I felt that I was alive and that I must arise and walk.” The production was on an almost bare stage, stripped of what Brook described as the “quincaillerie” (ironmongery) of stage production that had so fascinated him as an absurdly young director of theatre and opera. The play was revealed in its elemental force, a world without moral absolutes in a permanent condition of fallibility.
Peter was a universally revered director, admired as much for his genius as for his ability to reinvent himself. When I began directing, I wrote to him and to my astonishment he invited me to come to his home where, although I was thoroughly and obviously ignorant and starstruck, he spoke with unforced charm and great clarity, without ever talking down to me: how plays were revealed during rehearsals, not mapped out beforehand; how rehearsals must be a journey; how there was no such thing as a definitive production; of magic, of instinct, of showmanship. He was by turns grave, impish and passionate.
Many years later, he became a friend, still offering me imperishable advice: “Nothing is achieved in the theatre that doesn’t come from the practical rather than the theoretical”; “Never have a press night, it freezes the work”; “Directing is getting people on and off stage, like bringing the orchestra in on time.” His timing was always perfect: at the age of 20 he was directing Paul Scofield in King John in Birmingham, a year later Love’s Labour’s Lost at Stratford, then at the Royal Opera House where he invited Salvador Dalí to design a production of Salome. Sadly, it was never staged: it required the Thames to be diverted so that an ocean liner could burst through the back wall of the Covent Garden stage.
I was living out of London from the mid-1960s so I missed Peter’s years of investigation – using improvisation, sounds and rhythms rather than words, acting with nonsense texts – that to me, a characteristically English empiricist, seemed impenetrable. But in 1970, when I saw his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it became clear that his experiments into the theatreness of theatre had revealed a world of wit and invention. The set was a great white box with two doors and a balcony above with ladders leading to it and the fairies swung on trapezes, manipulating the action like none-too-diligent stagehands. There were no received ideas about theatre or about the supernatural. It embodied Peter’s maxim that “theatre becomes a deadly industry if a performer isn’t there to play”.
Then, at the age of 45, he withdrew from British theatre. My regret at his departure was mixed both with admiration and with envy: he’d escaped the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, the insular, earthbound British theatre and the creeping infection of self-doubt. He made a disused music hall in Paris his theatrical home and his work became an explicit search for meaning, a spiritual quest.
He embarked with a group of 15 actors on a succession of investigations into the nature of theatre from a mountain top in Persia to villages in west Africa and fruit farms in California. He was “exploring life beyond the cliches”. It led to his masterpiece, The Mahabharata, a trilogy adapted from the world’s longest narrative poem, the core of Hindu culture. Along with an audience who’d travelled like pilgrims from all over the country, I saw the production in a tram shed in Glasgow – a nine-hour story of a society on the edge of collapse. It ended, as the sun rose, with a vision of peace, harmony and forgiveness.
The production was performed with a few simple props and exquisite emblematic costumes on a floor of red earth. It held stage magic, ritual and psychological reality within a Shakespearean span, vast sweeping battles following moments of intense intimacy. A snake of flame twisted out of the dark, pulling a dancer in its wake; a torch-lit battle ended with a nuclear flare; arrows appeared to fly across the stage, horses to gallop. The staging had the brilliance and bravura that could have been attention-seeking were it not so obviously the consequence of trying to find the most expressive way of telling the story.
Peter was 92 the last time I saw him, to do a talk together on the Olivier stage. He was physically frail and when we walked on stage he sought my arm to guide him through the off stage darkness. As soon as the audience saw him they rose to their feet to applaud. He cast off my arm, straightened up, advanced to the front of the stage and bowed. After our talk the audience asked questions: “Why will people pay a lot for a pair of shoes but balk at paying much less for theatre tickets?” To which he answered: “Shoes haven’t let people down over the centuries. The theatre has.” He was the exception to his rule.
• This article was amended on 16 December 2022. At 20, Peter Brook directed Paul Scofield in King John, rather than as Hamlet as an earlier version said.