Peter Brook and Blanche Marvin

Blanche Marvin on the legacy of Peter Brook, who died last week aged 97, and the Empty Space… Peter Brook Awards

The groundbreaking British theatre director Peter Brook died earlier this month, on 2 July 2022, at the age of 97.

Theatre critic and producer Blanche Marvin MBE, who has been involved in writing, directing and producing theatre in London and in New York for over 50 years , was a friend and associate of Brook, and created the Empty Space… Peter Brook Awards. Here she writes about the man and his legacy.

There has been endless attention and obituaries in all the news media over Peter Brook’s death… far more than when he was alive. In all of these obituaries none of the critics, including the ones who were part of the team that helped its functioning, mentioned the Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards, started in 1998,  when the Arts Council suddenly changed its policy from subsidising the fringe theatres, no matter the size of attendance.

They then demanded a track record. I had a small department at the Arts Council where I was discovering new writers, archiving and placing the plays in those fringe theatres. This sudden change of policy left me bereft. I then began to think of a means of continuing this important programme on my own.

I deeply believed that Peter Brook had not only changed the world of William Shakespeare with Midsummers Night’s Dream, but also carried through and opened the horizons of the profound concept of the French cave theatres. Paris had just been freed of the German occupation, and with little money opened any available space to perform and express that existential period via its brilliant writers, all of which influenced world theatre. The Hamburg Opera House’s use of its space for improvised new plays and the classics  also bore its influence upon Peter.  

Peter Brook embodied the concept that buildings do not make theatre, but rather an empty space with an actor who had something to say, whether it be Shakespeare or current contemporary plays, made theatre. That concept opened theatre to and from the world. There was no need for huge sums of monies or buildings, but the will and drive of the theatre-makers to express the will of the people in whatever possible space in postwar Britain they took over. But years passed and Peter Brook left England to create his theatre in France (Bouffe du Nord) from where he could travel worldwide with those great productions of the Mahabharata  (the classic Indian myths) collaborated with Jeanjean-Claude Carrier which projected its message mostly through image and gesture, Conference of the Birds (based on 12th century Persian poem) andTierno Bokar, a bio-drama about a Malian Sufi. As Brook toured the world with Bouffes du Nord he spent little time in England and only some time in Scotland.

So I created the Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards in 1998. It was the work of these Awards that reawakened the impact of Brook’s concepts. The Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards opened doors and helped to legitimatise fringe theatre; its team of leading critics brought an awareness, recognition and legitimacy to the writers and work of these empty-space theatres. It also brought back Peter Brook, himself, to England . We ended  the awards in 2017, after 28  years of innovative work in bringing the fringe into the main stream. But times change, our premise was redundant, and the concept of awards became so abused, it lost its real impact. Our awards had a very particular meaning and service; it came to its natural end.  But it brought Peter Brook back to London with his varied productions at the Young Vic under the hand of David Lan and at the National Theatre under the directorship of  Rufus Norris. 

Peter Brook’s  list of contemporary plays that were performed in France and toured, including London, were a far cry from Shakespeare – although Peter directed his own intimate version of The Tempest – and included Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, The Valley of Astonishment… and there was that period when Samuel Beckett and Antonin Artaud in his “theatre of cruelty”, influenced Brook’s Marat /Sade in 1964; while the German writer Peter Weiss influenced US in 1966, an improvised anti-war play on the Vietnam war. In addition his fable plays like The Suit or The Prisoner emphasised his shaman side rather than Shakespeare, not to mention his books The Tip of the Tongue (describing the potency of words),  Playing by Ear (the importance of music), The Quality of Mercy (an insight into Shakespeare), or his workshops and consultations with directors. He thought in depth, taught and directed with grace, and was open to the  constancy of change.

We shall not see his like again. Goodnight, sweet Prince, and may the flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Blance Marvin

Picture: Peter Brook and Blanche Marvin, photo by Nick Flintoff


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