‘The greatest director the world has ever seen’ – actors salute Peter Brook

<span>Photograph: Derek Hudson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Derek Hudson/Getty Images

Adrian Lester: ‘Peter saw theatre as a ceaseless investigation’

I’ve never seen a director discard so many brilliant ideas because they didn’t quite fit what he wanted the audience to feel. Peter was always paring things down to their simplest, most honest form. He was softly spoken, very gentle, incredibly astute. His powers of observation were the best I’ve known.

Some directors will tell you what to do: stand here, walk over there, sit down. That is the most basic kind of approach, like directing traffic. Others will tell you how to say what you’re saying. But Peter directed your thoughts. He didn’t care so much how it sounds or how you moved, he was interested in what you meant. You were always left digging into deeper parts of yourself. In doing a play with him, you really didn’t know where his work finished and your work started. It just felt like you were completely free on stage.

When we first worked together on Hamlet it was just me and him in a rehearsal space for a week. We went through Hamlet’s soliloquies chronologically and he would sit very close to me, both of us on the floor – even the tension of standing up was removed. We’d pull apart the speeches and it became clear, for me, that “to be or not to be” was in the wrong place. This was the speech of a person caught in a predicament that was twisting his mind and soul so much that he was wondering whether it was worth living. Peter moved it to the point where Hamlet has killed Polonius and removed the body and, in our version, he then encountered Ophelia on stage and she takes the widest berth around him. You see Hamlet understand what he has done. It also gives you a stepping stone into the next time you see Ophelia when she is distraught and giving out the flowers: she knows that the person she loves has killed her father.

Peter wanted to strip away what he thought was unnecessary – he took away the political drama of Hamlet and wanted to concentrate on the domestic: mother, brother, father, son, uncle, friend. He pointedly called it The Tragedy of Hamlet. It went straight through, at two and half hours with no interval, so it was a test for the audience as well.

‘He was always paring things down’ … Adrian Lester in rehearsals for Hamlet at the Bouffes du Nord, 2000.
‘He was always paring things down’ … Adrian Lester in rehearsals for Hamlet at the Bouffes du Nord, 2000. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/EPA

Sometimes Peter would discard an idea, saying “That’s opera” or “That’s film.” He was always after what was deeply theatrical and brought into western theatre elements of performance that are older than ours, such as those from Africa and Japan.

Always very loyal, he had a group of actors he returned to again and again because they had certain qualities he wanted to use. We were amazed that in our playing of Hamlet, the actor Yoshi Oïda came in during rehearsals and performed with us for a while, and that Akram Khan came in, too. Having a new person who was brilliant in their field, and would just do a moment on stage for us, changed the whole play and made it fresh.

The Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris [a dilapidated music hall reopened by Brook in 1974] is a beautiful space. You can see a similar “rough magic” brought into new theatres today. In older buildings, designers will raise the seats, push the stage out and let the audience truly look at the actors – all to heighten the effect that you’re all in the same space together.

For Peter, theatre was an investigation that doesn’t cease. Even in the final performance of Hamlet, and in the film, we were still searching. An audience can feel when a comedian is confident – and then they will laugh. But if they feel at any point that the comedian is worried or not really on form, then they won’t laugh. It’s a sixth sense. In theatre, and especially with Hamlet, you have to reinvestigate those lines, beats and questions every time. Sometimes you might come to a slightly different answer than you did the night before. If you do it correctly, the audience will feel it and know that you’re not just running through a script.

If your endgame as an actor is that you want as many people as possible to look at you then that’s fine, go do your thing. But we have a greater role – every musician, dancer, singer and actor – and that is to hold a mirror up to society. Peter said at one point, if Hamlet was a nice play we wouldn’t still be doing it 400 years later. Its longevity is testament to the perfect questions it seems to ask about our darker nature. It’s not supposed to be nicely wrapped up; it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. It’s that understanding of Hamlet that led to me years later being able to understand why I would step on stage and play Othello.

Peter understood that a play has its greatest power in the minds of the audience, and that what the actor does is use the words to point to a meaning. That meaning isn’t a conclusion they’ve already reached and that they deliver themselves. Peter was always dealing with the ethereal, with plays that ask big questions about who we are and who we think we are. Not plays that go beginning, middle, end, but plays that leave you thinking about your own life on the journey home. CW

Speechless … Vivien Leigh as Lavinia in Titus Andronicus in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955.
Speechless … Vivien Leigh as Lavinia in Titus Andronicus in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955. Photograph: AP

Janet Suzman: ‘He made myth flesh for ever’

“Twinkling ice-picks.” Trust Kenneth Tynan to find the perfect phrase to describe the blue, searching, seeking eyes of Peter Brook. Their search is over now, after 97 years, leaving a legacy so huge I can only choose here to recall a few stunning visuals.

Titus Andronicus at Stratford in the late 50s … a figure appears slowly stage left, her two stumped wrists painfully held out, showing a shocking cascade of scarlet ribbons falling from them, not a hair out of place on her exquisite head, not a rend in her beautiful gown, only a thin trickle of blood from her perfect mouth, open with a silent scream. The gasp from the house I can still hear now as Vivien Leigh’s Lavinia was revealed, raped and mutilated and rendered speechless but with no show of gore or tears or the mess of realism.

Another indelible memory: Paul Scofield’s ravaged face as Lear in black-and-white close-up, the closest-uppest I ever saw, in Brook’s haunting film. Scofield was that rarest of stars who gave the impression of infinite inner landscapes behind his dark eyes; Lear without those hinterlands is an annoyingly wayward and irascible old party. Brook’s film of Lear is a dark poem of incomprehension and enlightenment and is genius.

A third picture: it’s 1971 and under a blue-black Persian sky with diamond stars sit the lucky, lucky audience getting to watch Brook’s Orghast performed at Persepolis. Fifty feet above us a huge ball of fire, blazing like the sun, is slowly lowered, its orange flames flickering over the ancient bas-reliefs adorning the tomb of Darius. Below that flaming orb a stocky man gazes up in wonder, holding aloft a huge glinting brass dish into which the orb will delicately settle – the myth of Prometheus catching fire is made flesh.

I thank him for these unforgettables – these and many more – and for the best, and briefest note any director ever gave an actor, when I was dress-rehearsing Cleopatra. It doesn’t matter what it was but I’m forever grateful for the insight behind those mischievous ice-picks.

‘Infinitely more intense’ … Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra at the RSC in Stratford in 1978.
‘Infinitely more intense’ … Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra at the RSC in Stratford in 1978. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

Glenda Jackson: ‘He always demanded the truth’

He was the greatest director the world has ever seen! Here was this guy constantly looking for something essentially true and deliverable to an audience. Nothing was taken for granted and he never took himself for granted, either – if he set us all off in the wrong direction, he’d stop it and put us back on to another path. Wherever he went, he was always open to cultures other than our own. His work was extraordinary and inspiring because he learned from those cultures.

In Antony and Cleopatra [starring Jackson and Alan Howard at the RSC in 1978] he made the play’s shady areas much clearer. Beforehand there had to be a majestic quality to it because she was queen of Egypt, but that was not his approach at all. It was infinitely more intense. He saw the other characters as people who lived and worked together 24/7, 365 days of the year – people who knew each other inside out. That brought a different dimension to it.

I visited him at the Bouffes du Nord several times. There was always that sense that you would see an audience being taken to a different place. It’s a ruin there, but whatever was happening on stage, you were in that world, not in a shabby theatre.

He changed theatre by always demanding the truth – without ever using those words. He didn’t hang about: if you went down the wrong road you were told in no uncertain terms. He always felt that there was something to be discovered – and he was an absolute genius in helping you find it. CW

Frances de la Tour as Helena, with Ben Kingsley as Demetrius, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970.
Use your imagination … Frances de la Tour as Helena, with Ben Kingsley as Demetrius, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

Frances de la Tour: ‘Whatever you do, don’t act!’

The Empty Space is a slim book but says it all: someone walks on stage, someone watches, and that’s the beginning of theatre. And whatever you do, “Don’t act”, Peter would say. Quite a thing to ask. It’s the imperative question: can you do this without acting? Just use your imagination.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a very physical production in a way that no one had seen before. And not just the trapeze work. We romped about the stage, with the lines of Shakespeare always primary. You can’t jump on somebody and not come out with the couplet as well – that was the purpose of the jump, to do this amazing physical work and speak Shakespeare at the same time. In rehearsal we would sit in a circle and pass lines to each other, not necessarily our own, like we were passing a ball. In rehearsals you usually get call sheets – you’ll be there for a couple of hours and then go home. But we were there every morning until early evening.

The Dream was one of the first things I ever did and I was unbelievably fortunate to have that experience. In a way it was very hard afterwards – who was going to match it? He told us you mustn’t look for it in a director, you must find it in yourself. He said: “I have been so complimented on some of my productions, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it was the actors who did it.” I’ve never heard any other director talk about actors in that way. He didn’t rave about us or dismiss us, he just spoke about the innate gift to dare – to stand there, pretty naked, with these wonderful lines that aren’t your own and make them true. CW