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Peter Brook, visionary theater director, dies aged 97

<i>Jacques Brinon/AP</i><br/>British theatre director Peter Brook
Jacques Brinon/AP
British theatre director Peter Brook

Oscar Holland, CNN

Director Peter Brook, whose ground-breaking stage productions transformed 20th-century theater, has died aged 97, according to his publisher, Nick Hern Books.

“We’re honored to have been Peter’s publisher for the past 20 years, sharing his wisdom and insights with the world,” read a statement posted by the publisher to Twitter on Sunday. “He leaves behind an incredible artistic legacy.”

His children Simon and Irina, both of whom are also directors, confirmed his death via social media, with the former describing himself as “the luckiest guy in the world to have had such an amazing and loving father.” Neither specified how or where their father had died.

Born in London in 1925, Brook made his directorial debut in the early 1940s before staging a rendition of Shakespeare’s “King John” in Birmingham, England. After bringing avant-garde works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau to the stage, he went on to direct string of critically acclaimed Shakespeare productions starring some of the era’s greats — from a 1955 version of “Hamlet” with Paul Scofield to a European tour of “Titus Andronicus” featuring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

During a long-standing association with the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Brook established a reputation for breaking with convention. Among his best-known productions was a Tony Award-winning 1970 staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — starring Frances de la Tour, Ben Kingsley and, later, Patrick Stewart — which rejected the classic interpretations of the time with minimalist staging, boldly sexual undercurrents and contemporary costumes that spanned cultures.

In doing so, Brook “completely reset what it meant to bring Shakespeare alive for a contemporary audience,” the RSC wrote in a tribute posted to its website Sunday.

The production, which is often referred to simply as “Peter Brook’s Dream”, continues to “exert a serious influence on theater artists today,” the organization added.

As well as works by the English playwright, Brook’s time at the RSC saw him direct “US”, a searing critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and a Tony Award-winning rendition of German dramatist Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade”. Brook would go on to direct a celebrated 1967 movie of the latter — one of over a dozen films he produced during lifetime, including versions of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and a big-screen adaptation of “King Lear”.

In 1970, Brook relocated to France and took the reins at the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris. There, he oversaw not only French-language renditions of Shakespeare, but works by writers from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov to Senegalese poet Birago Diop.

The Bouffes du Nord also housed Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research, a company of actors, directors and others that traveled the world staging plays and researching elements of storytelling that could transcend culture. The group famously produced a nine-hour-long version of the ancient Indian epic “The Mahabharata”, which Brook later adapted into five-hour movie of the same name.

In his later years, Brook continued bringing tales from around the world to his stages, telling the life story of the Sufi sage Tierno Bokar and recounting the struggles of Black South Africans during apartheid in his adaptation of Can Themba’s “The Suit”.

He was also celebrated for taking his performances beyond the confines of the theaters. His troupe staged productions everywhere from disused buildings to tribal villages during its tours of developing countries.

This approach saw Brook putting theater “at the heart of common human experience,” wrote British historian Sir Simon Schama, posting to Twitter on Sunday. As a result, “theater (was) no longer a particular type of building with a stage but could happen as he said in any empty space,” Schama added.

Other tributes have flooded in on social media, from across the arts world and beyond. Rufus Norris, director and joint chief executive of the UK’s National Theatre, said in a statement that Brook was “the singular theatre practitioner of the last century, both fearless and peerless in his enquiry into the breadth and depth of the form.”

Oliver Mears, director of opera at Britain’s Royal Opera meanwhile described him as “not only a visionary opera and theatre practitioner but also a ground-breaking author and film director.” Actor Antonio Banderas said that Brook “leaves behind an unforgettable way to narrate the world around us.”

Brook was married to the actress Natasha Parry from 1951 until her death in 2015.

He was among theater’s most decorated figures, winning not only the aforementioned Tony Awards, but also an Emmy, an International Emmy, the Prix Italia and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale. He was named a Commander of France’s Legion of Honor in 2013 and was a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Companion of Honour in the UK.

Top image caption: Peter Brook pictured in Paris in 2011.

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