Peter Brook, influential theatre visionary, dies aged 97

<span>Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

The groundbreaking British theatre director Peter Brook, whose huge influence reached around the world, has died at the age of 97. His death on Saturday was confirmed by his assistant, Nina Soufy.

Brook redefined the way we think about theatre with his productions at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company; at the Bouffes du Nord, the dilapidated Parisian music hall which he made his base for more than 30 years; in African villages, where his actors improvised performances; and on the stages both grand and modest visited by his globetrotting ensemble.

Many of his productions were celebrated for stripping theatre of superfluity and distilling the drama to its essentials, presented with a clear eye and an elegant touch. Brook’s landmark 1970 RSC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, influenced by both a Jerome Robbins ballet and the Peking Circus, was performed in a white cube of a set and boasted trapezes, stilts and a forest of steel wire. In other revelatory Shakespeare productions, he directed John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry, to whom Brook was married. His productions were noted for their diversity, with Brook a pioneer of what he called “colour-rich”, as opposed to “colour-blind”, casting.

Related: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage’: 10 of the best Peter Brook quotes

He also directed musicals, staged the anti-Vietnam war protest play US, co-created an experimental version of the Promethean myth with Ted Hughes and, in a French quarry in 1985, put on a celebrated nine-hour version of the Mahabharata. He returned to the Sanskrit epic with his 2016 production Battlefield, staged with his long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne.

One of theatre’s most visionary and influential thinkers, he wrote several publications including The Empty Space (1968), the opening of which outlined his vision: “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.”

Kenneth Tynan said that Brook’s work was for the “theatrical gourmet” because he “cooks with cream, blood and spices”. Brook also worked in film, including a 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and in opera, directing radically pared-down productions of Carmen and The Magic Flute.

He was born in London on 21 March 1925 and, aged seven, acted out a four-hour version of Hamlet on his own for his parents. After attending Magdalen College, Oxford, he was soon at the Royal Opera House, directing Richard Strauss’s opera Salome with designs by Salvador Dalí. He directed Olivier as Titus Andronicus in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1955 and when Peter Hall became artistic director of the RSC in 1958 he asked Brook to assist him there. Brook’s RSC productions included a 1962 staging of King Lear – the play he considered “the supreme achievement of the world’s theatre” – that starred Paul Scofield.

Several of his shows received Broadway transfers, including the avant garde Marat/Sade, which won the Tony award for best play in 1964. The concept for the show was that the Marquis de Sade was putting on a drama about the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat acted out by the inmates of a mental asylum.

In 1970, Brook moved to Paris where he set up his International Centre for Theatre Research. The company visited Africa where his actors gave performances that “didn’t use anything that corresponded to the theatre of the time – we wanted to play to audiences who were not conditioned by anything. We wouldn’t, even experimentally, do a play with a text or a theme or a name.”

In 1974, he turned a neglected music hall situated behind the Gare du Nord station into an essential destination for theatre lovers: the Bouffes du Nord. The dilapidated building had only minimal refurbishment so its walls remained as scorched as when Brook found them. He opened the theatre with a production of Timon of Athens and the applause brought down bits of the ceiling.

The Man Who, which premiered in Paris in 1993, was inspired by the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which revisited the disorders of Sacks’s patients. Brook’s own neurological research led to his piece The Valley of Astonishment, about synaesthesia, co-created with Estienne and performed at the Young Vic in London with Kathryn Hunter among the cast.

Brook directed Scofield and Lester as Hamlet for the screen as well as for the stage, and his Mahabharata also became an epic TV series. He was made a CBE in 1965 and a companion of honour in 1998. His production The Prisoner was staged in Paris and at the Edinburgh festival and the National Theatre in London in 2018. This spring, he returned to work on his play Tempest Project, adapted and directed with Estienne.

In a 2017 interview with Michael Billington, Brook spoke of how important it is to “swim against the tide and achieve whatever we can in our chosen field. Fate dictated that mine was that of theatre and, within that, I have a responsibility to be as positive and creative as I can. To give way to despair is the ultimate cop-out.”

Brook married the actor Natasha Parry in 1951 and they had two children, Irina (now a director) and Simon (now a producer). Parry died in 2015.

Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, was among those who paid tribute to Brook. “We have lost a beacon,” she said. “He didn’t just believe in the profound humanity and transformative power of theatre and Shakespeare, he put it into action. He was a true and rare practitioner and his legacy must live on in those of us who humbly follow in his eternal summer.”