At that time, Mr. Brook, who enjoyed “shaking up terrible, mind-numbing old conventions,” as he said, had become an absolute iconoclast. Some mark this change during his Parisian production in 1960 of Jean Genet’s “Le balcon”, a work considered audaciously subversive at the time. For the scenes of Genet’s exotic life in a Parisian brothel, Mr. Brook brought in strikingly good-looking amateurs, found in Parisian bars, as well as professional actors and dancers. But a sweeping revival of “King Lear”, staged for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1962, was more significant.
Not only did Mr. Brook encourage Scofield to play the titanic hero of the lore as a painfully flawed human being, but just before production opened, he threw in the set he himself had designed, s ensuring that the plot unfolded on a bare stage under ordinary lighting. The resulting epic unforgettably exposed the cruel absurdities of mankind.
Experiences and Questions
Mr Brook had made extensive use of improvisation and acting when rehearsing “The Balcony”, and in 1964 he took this process further in a series of experimental workshops funded by the RSC called the season of the theater of cruelty, in homage. to the theories of the French playwright Antonin Artaud. The idea was to encourage a troupe of actors, including the young Glenda Jackson, to find new forms of physical and emotional expression and to ask themselves fundamental questions about their profession. As Mr. Brook recalled in “Threads of Time,” it was, “What is a written word? What is a spoken word? Why do theatre?
Mr. Brook never stopped asking such questions. His career from 1964 can be seen as a quest for fundamental truths about life and theater which he believed could never be final. The research led to what he called the “Theatre of Disturbance” – as exemplified by “Marat/Sade”, his exploration of madness in revolutionary France; and ‘US’, its evocation of the Vietnam War – and to such curious works as ‘The Man Who’ and the 1996 play ‘Qui est La?’ ”, which used readings of Bertolt Brecht, Konstantin Stanislavsky and other theorists and combined them with “Hamlet” as they could have staged it.
Some perceived a change of direction in his work. Many were dark, unsettling, even desperate: “Titus”, “Lear”, “US” and, in 1975, “The Ik”, which involved an African tribe morally ruined by relocation and lack of food. Indeed, the most successful of the few films he eventually made was a 1963 version of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, which Mr Brook described as “a potted history of mankind”. The still famous production of Mr. Brook in 1970 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” full of aerial acrobatics derived from his visit to a Chinese circus, ended with smiling actors shaking hands with spectators.
In “The Conference of the Birds”, based on a Sufi poem, the title birds found new spiritual understanding when their long troubled journey ended on the threshold of paradise. And his 1985 revamp of “Mahabharata” featured dynastic warfare and suffering, ending with another vision of paradise, this time as a place of music, food, conversation and harmony. Theatre, Mr. Brook wrote in his memoirs, should affirm “there is light in the darkness” and be “a powerful antidote to despair”.