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mystical giant who changed theatre forever

Peter Brook, who has died aged 97, was among the most influential theatre directors of the 20th century, reinventing the art by paring it back to drama’s most basic and powerful elements.

An almost mystical figure often mentioned in the same breath as Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian who revolutionised acting, Brook continued to work and challenge audiences well into his 90s.

Best-known for his 1985 masterpiece “The Mahabharata”, a nine-hour version of the Hindu epic, he lived in Paris from the early 1970s, where he set up the International Centre for Theatre Research in an old music hall called the Bouffes du Nord.

A prodigy who made his professional directorial debut at just 17, Brook was a singular talent right from the start. 

He mesmerised audiences in London and New York with his era-defining “Marat/Sade” in 1964, which won a Tony award, and wrote “The Empty Space”, one of the most influential texts on theatre ever, three years later.

Its opening lines became a manifesto for a generation of young performers who would forge the fringe and alternative theatre scenes.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” he wrote.

“A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre…”

For many, Brook’s startling 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a white-cube gymnasium was a turning point in world theatre. 

It inspired actress Helen Mirren to abandon her burgeoning mainstream career to join his nascent experimental company in Paris.

– African odyssey –

Born in London on March 21, 1925, to a family of Jewish scientists who had immigrated from Latvia, Brook was an acclaimed director in London’s West End by his mid-20s.

Before his 30th birthday he was directing hits on Broadway.

But driven by a passion for experimentation that he picked up from his parents, Brook soon “exhausted the possibilities of conventional theatre”.

His first film, “Lord of the Flies” (1963), an adaptation of the William Golding novel about schoolboys marooned on an island who turn to savagery, was an instant classic.

By the time he took a production of “King Lear” to Paris a few years later, he was developing an interest in working with actors from different cultures.

In 1971 he moved permanently to the French capital, and set off the following year with a band of actors including Mirren and the Japanese legend Yoshi Oida on an 8,500-mile (13,600-kilometre) odyssey across Africa to test his ideas.

Drama critic John Heilpern, who documented their journey in a bestselling book, said Brook believed theatre was about freeing the audience’s imagination.

“Every day they would lay out a carpet in a remote village and would improvise a show using shoes or a box,” he later told the BBC.

“When someone entered the carpet the show began. There was no script or no shared language.” 

But the gruelling trip took its…

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