Walk into the McGuire Theatre and all the way to the back wall the stage is nearly bare. There’s a drum, a chair, some bamboo and a few pieces of cloth. An apt introduction to a piece by Peter Brook, one of the legendary directors of our time and author of Empty Spaces, his text on theatre direction.
Battlefield, adapted and directed by Peter Brook along with Marie-Helene Estienne, from a play by Jean-Claude Carriere is now on the Guthrie’s proscenium stage. Brook is known for his barebones productions such as: Marat/Sade, and his massive, nine-hour production of the ancient Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata.
Brook’s Battlefield begins where his Mahabharata left off, in one of the last chapters of the epic.
We are introduced to the characters after the battle is over, as they try to absorb the devastation of civil war. Both, Dhritarashtra, former king and now vanquished patriarch, and the victorious Yudhishthira observe the battlefield and express the same grief and horror at the sight of so many dead bodies, the only sound being the vultures and jackals that consume the corpses. Given so much devastation, Yudhishthira needs to be prodded into taking his place as ruler of the kingdom. What follows is his instruction in how to accept fate and go forward.
Does it work—this paired down story told with sticks of bamboo and a few yards of material? Mostly.
Brook took some criticism for not including the Hindu philosophy of circular reoccurrence of the universe in his version of the Mahabharata. Accordingly, we go from creation to development to collapse and then regeneration as the god Shiva dances the universe into being and back out again. In modern jargon, we would say that the universe goes from big bang through development to catastrophic collapse into a black hole and then again to big bang and on and on, forever. Existence, in Indian thought, isn’t a straight-line narrative as Brook’s version of Mahabharata would lead you to believe—it is revolving.
Battlefield addresses that cycle. Yudhishthira is fated to be victorious in war. He cannot escape becoming King though he can choose to rule wisely. Likewise, he cannot stop the future events that are out of his control; towards the end of his life a renewal of hostilities brings on another war.
Over all Battlefield is a thoughtful and rewarding piece of theatre. The actors on the nearly bare stage were always interesting. Carole Karemera is both physically stunning and fully engaged in her multiple roles which include Yudhishthira’s mother. The musical accompaniment on tabla drum by Toshi Tsuchito is perfectly placed throughout the 70-minute show. Actors Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan lack some vitality. Perhaps it was the Sunday night blahs, but on press night they seemed tired, rather than detached.
I am not sure how someone without a background in Hindu thought would experience the show. (I owned the PBS tapes of Brook’s Mahabharata until I got rid of my VCR.) A little more effort in building the story might be welcomed. But to see a Peter Brook production without ever leaving the city limits is worth quite a bit. Given that master Brook is in his ninth decade it’s an opportunity not likely to recur in this incarnation.
Note: Nearly the entire audience stayed for the post play discussion with Brook himself. He was charming and insightful. He cited Tyrone “Tony” Guthrie’s dynamism and his balance of respect/disrespect for the theatre as inspiration for his own career.