Legendary director Peter Brook brings a real-life fable to the stage – a young man standing alone outside a prison for years.
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” Peter Brook famously asserted at the start of The Empty Space, a slim volume of musings which, at a stroke, altered the general perception of what was possible in the theatre. To this day it challenges theatre-makers to work miracles with the minimum and legitimises a lack of clutter, opulence, stuff.
It’s typical of Britain’s most influential living director – longest-serving, too, with a career dating back to 1945 – that the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Empty Space has crept up on him unnoticed. “Is it that long ago?” he says, surprised. Now 93, he has been otherwise engaged with his most recent piece, The Prisoner, which gets its UK premiere as part of a residency for the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord within the EIF programme. Peter Brook was instrumental in the restoration of the crumbling Parisian theatre and ran it from 1974 to 2011.
He pronounces himself delighted to be coming back to Edinburgh, but you have to consult the archives to discover that he first came here with John Gielgud playing Leontes in The Winter’s Tale in 1951.
“I don’t hang on to dates,” he confesses, his mental alertness nonetheless unmistakable as he talks in his office in Paris. He made it his home after his landmark RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970. “I’m only interested in the present. To me, what’s past is past.”
There’s a curious link between The Empty Space and The Prisoner. Peter Brook used the money raised from the lecture series that fed into the book to fund his mid-Sixties wanderlust: what happened during the resulting trip to Afghanistan has, he says, “haunted” him ever since, but has only now found artistic expression.
In his 1999 memoir Threads of Time, he recounted what ensued when he met a young Sufi, known as the Black Dervish, on the outskirts of Kabul.
“I spoke with him several times,” Brook recalls, taking up the story. “We were due to leave for Kandahar – and as we said goodbye, he said: ‘It will be worth your while turning off the road before you reach the city and heading up a track for a couple of kilometres. You’ll see a prison and opposite it a young man staring up at it.
He committed an unspeakable crime, but because I knew he had many deep qualities of character that would be destroyed by imprisonment, I asked the judge if I could invent the punishment – which he agreed to. So, instead of being inside the prison he must face it for the duration of his sentence. He knows that he can get up and walk away but he also knows he must honour his own punishment.’”
It’s like a naturally occurring fable, I suggest. “That’s exactly the word we use,” he replies. “It has the quality of a fable yet it’s something I witnessed.”
It has taken him half a lifetime to find a means of giving it a full artistic shape. Initially, he was seized by the idea that it would make a good film but as he explains, “We couldn’t find the right place or the right language to film it in.
We went to various locations – even an Indian community near Santa Fe – but we never found the answer. So the script stayed untouched until a year and a half ago when Marie-Hélène Estienne [French playwright and Peter Brook’s long-term collaborator] said: “Why don’t we see it if it’s right for the theatre?” We looked again and realised: of course! A film would be far too naturalistic.
All our work in theatre has been developing to a point of evocation and suggestion. What we have found is that wherever we’ve played it, it touches people – I think it gives them hope that somewhere there is light.”
New work sustains Peter Brook, all the more so perhaps since the death in 2015 of his wife of more than 60 years, the actress Natasha Parry. “I don’t feel I’m slowing down,” he says, wonderingly. “The biggest horror would be to retire because for me retirement is an abdication. I can’t stop. I want to be as useful as possible.”
Peter Brook’s The Prisoner – Where & When
The Lyceum, 22-26 August, times vary.