Peter Brook, one of the world's greatest living theatre directors, turns 80 next March. The anniversary will be a cause for celebration in this country - even though Brook has lived in Paris since 1970. Exhibitions are being planned, a critical biography is in the pipeline, and the man himself will undoubtedly be lured over the Channel to take part in birthday proceedings.
You'd actually need about a year to pay definitive homage to Brook, such has been the intensity of his life and the diversity of his work. His adventure-packed career stretches back as far his late teens when, resisting the pressure of his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents - both chemists - to go into law, he set his heart on becoming a film director, only to make theatre his first-love when the former ambition stalled.
By the age of 20, he was directing Paul Scofield at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in Man and Superman; thereafter it was up, up and away - with a series of precociously assured Shakespeare productions. Then, in 1968, he published The Empty Space .
This ground-breaking - or rather ground-clearing - manifesto began with lines familiar to all those who have entered the theatre in his wake: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."
The accent henceforth was on exploration and discovery, entailing worldwide travel, a willingness to be influenced by non-Western cultures and a refusal to conform to commercial expectations; the work that has emerged over the past three decades has looked distinctly "unBritish"up to and including his acclaimed chamber version of Hamlet (2000), starring the black British actor Adrian Lester.
The jewel in his crown to date was The Mahabharata, a nine-hour adaptation of Hinduism's vast core text, which was lauded to the skies when it was first staged in an Avignon quarry in 1985. La Mort de Krishna, coming to the Brighton Festival (`La Mort de Krishna', Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton 19-22 May )
this week, is a surprise dramatic coda to the epic. Briefly caught mid-rehearsals for a new show, the unflaggingly busy but unfailingly serene Brook explains that this 80-minute monologue represents the culmination of all the work done on that landmark project.
"We always had in our minds that we would do Mahabharata `Four'," he explains, "we" being the writer Jean-Claude Carriere, responsible for editing down the Mahabharata's 18 volumes, and the actor Maurice Benichou, who played the god Krishna in the trilogy. "In the poem, there are some 50 different endings, and so many stories that develop, but this is the essential tragedy - Krishna voluntarily recognising that it's time for him to die."
"Essential" is a favourite word of Brook's. Where the achievement of his Mahabharata was to turn the longest poem ever written into an elemental experience, performed by a cast of 20 actors and musicians using simple props and beautiful costumes on a red-earth floor, there's even less adornment here. "It's just one person alone, standing very simply on a carpet, with a few essential Indian objects," he says.
In many ways, La Mort de Krishna finds things coming full circle for Brook, who recalls first being introduced to and inspired by The Mahabharata in 1966, when he was working on US, a documentary piece in response to the Vietnam War. "It was the beginning of everything. During rehearsals, a young Indian man came in and read us a very small portion of the poem, just three or four pages. It was the section when Arjuna, the greatest warrior in the field and in command of the strongest army, is about to commence the war of extermination between the two rival groups of cousins that dominates the story. And he stops dead in his tracks and says to Krishna: `Why should we fight?' At that time, it struck us so deeply because no president had the courage to stop themselves being carried along by the tide of events."
Back in 1985, at the time of The Mahabharata's premiere, Brook spoke of the parallels between the apocalyptic vision of the poem and "an age when the destruction of the world exists incessantly around us". Cut to 2004, and the aftermath of the war in Iraq and the relevance of La Mort de Krishna, in which Krishna laments that he has failed to restore peace, is clear.
It's this kind of oblique approach that Brook favours. "I'm not in agreement with a lot of my close colleagues in England. There, `political theatre' means putting situations straight out of real life on stage but, today, television and newspapers are doing this so well. If someone said to me, `Do a play about Baghdad', it would be such a crude simplification.
"With The Mahabharata, the message is so powerful, you don't need modern dress or contemporary references. In La Mort de Krishna, the audience finds that what they're witnessing on stage is talking directly about their own situation. If you go beyond the horror of war, you can find a form of catharsis, a reason why human beings need to continue to live and survive. That's the role of theatre."
Does Brook regard himself as living in exile? He never "rejected" England, he insists. "It was a whole mass of life circumstances that brought me to Paris. I didn't leave England because I disapproved of it. But I look at my friends, the people who have tried to stay faithful to their own convictions about theatre - and they've never had true cultural support. The French recognise that, if you trust an individual, you should support them and leave them alone."
Before I leave Brook alone, I ask whether there any plans to retire. "As long as there are things to do, I'll carry on," he says, adding with a Gallic flourish: "I leave it to destiny."
Peter Brook and Traditional Thought
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