- guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 December 2008 09.32 GMT
Peter Brook has been for 34 years, as Michael Billington pointed out last week, the presiding genius of the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, which has become the most influential performance space of the last 100 years. Now that he has announced a gentle transition to stewardship under his current collaborators Oliviers Mantei and Poubelle, it seems appropriate to evaluate just what one spirit can do for a place, and what happens when they move away.
First, the specifics of the story. The Bouffes, a former music hall just behind the Gare du Nord, was in terminal decline when Brook chanced upon it in 1974. His recognition of the theatrical value of its decay saved it from destruction. He literally stopped the rot at a specific point where, relying upon the audience’s imagination, it can be retuned to appear young or old, vast or intimate, holy or profane. A near-ruin, pregnant with possibility, it was exactly the theatre he wanted.
For six years, Brook had been peripatetic, having rejected conventional theatres for hindering the communication between performer and audience. He had taken a group of actors (many still work with him today) across Africa with just a carpet as «scenery», testing the limits of what can be shared between human beings with no apparent frame of reference. This experience was extended in the royal tombs of Persepolis with a project called Orghast, written on site by Ted Hughes (1971), and in the streets, shopping malls and fields of North America.
Rather miraculously, the Bouffes du Nord (designed by an architect with no prior experience of the theatre) has nourished all of the stories Peter has told since 1974: it has shape-shifted into India and Africa, a Russian country house, an abstract desert island for The Tempest and a clinical ground for the doctor-patient dialogues of The Man Who. The Bouffes represented then, and represents now, a compelling answer to the question, «How can we make a space in which to tell a story?» In spite of its intimacy, it requires a heightened energy from performers. It also confers a responsibility on the audience to be attentive, to «assist» (as the French say) the performance: there is no room to slouch or hide in this tiny arena.
But the Bouffes has already gone beyond Brook. Among British directors, Deborah Warner and Declan Donnellan discovered Brook’s work here and soon returned to use it themselves; it has influenced their approach to theatre and opera in many ways. In continental Europe, directors Luca Ronconi and Luc Bondy have also refined their art here. Musicians such as Michel Portal and Daniel Humair have found this an ideal venue, both sonically and socially.
Brook has also exported the core principles of the Bouffes to several spaces he has created, adapted and discovered around the world – in Frankfurt, Adelaide, Avignon, Barcelona and elsewhere. Many of these were only ephemeral; some solidified into theatres and lost their spirit; others have taken on a vibrant life of their own. Just a few days ago, I was on the stage of the Harvey in Brooklyn, a beaten-up vaudeville hall like the Bouffes, where Sam Mendes is about to launch his globe-spanning Bridge Project with a production of The Cherry Orchard, one of the plays with which Peter opened the Harvey in the 1980s. There is still a bump at the back of the stalls where Peter created an entry through the audience .
I can fully understand that, at 83, Brook wants to relinquish the responsibilities of being the full-time manager of a theatre. It is characteristic of him that he should do so gently, without bombast, and in such a manner that the space stands the greatest possible chance of working in harmony with its future guardians. Part of Brook’s strength is that instead of inscribing principles in stone, he has already created the space for myriad kindred – but individual – spirits to share his world.
• Andrew Todd, a Paris-based architect, is co-author of the book The Open Circle: Peter Brook’s Theatre Environments, published by Faber. He recently transformed the Old Vic into a theatre in-the-round.