Earth is tired of the warriors who turn her into a battlefield, disturbing her peace. As these men’s arms, eyes and feet lie strewn, disassembled, across her beaten body, the survivors of the war embark on a macabre and ill-fated jigsaw puzzle of torn-apart flesh. Torsos reject heads. Heads reject torsos. What is damaged can’t be put back together. And it is here we meet Yudishtira, the new king, who can’t find recompense in the order that he won. Finding out that the man he defeated was his own brother, Yudishtira seeks to atone for his sins by exploring his own morality and destiny. His quest takes him to his own ancestor, a sage and reclusive provider of fables and truth, who prolongs this the hour of his death for just long enough to dispense timeless wisdom to our hero.
In Battlefield, legendary theatre director Peter Brook returns to a dislocated fragment of his nine-hour The Mahabharata of 1985, joining with fellow director Marie-Hélène Estienne to find life and fulfillment in this sawn-off part of the epic. It feels right that this director, with his exemplary knowledge of Shakespeare, has taken the end of war, and the struggle for status that follows it, as his starting point. With folkloric allusions to the mystery of motherhood, and a trial involving a pound of flesh, this well-carved extract recalls two of the Bard’s most memorable twists and is delivered from beginning to end with a measure and quality that belies Brook’s unrivalled history with Shakespeare.
Contrary to what the opening scene tells us, a complete being can be forged from multiple spirits, and this theme of (re)assembly is romanticised in many ways throughout this production. Musician Toshi Tsuchitori executes his drumbeats with swipes of goatskin, appropriately cutting the air with the sound of a blade as a king hacks off his flesh to prove he is true to his word. It is only when left as a naked skeleton does the mythical king prove himself to be an integral whole. In a later fable, Sean O’Callaghan takes the part of a worm who boasts, with pride and flamboyance in his voice, and regret and nervousness in his gestures, that “In a previous life I was very rich but I had a bad character”. Breaking his attempt to cross the road and avoid a chariot in order to talk, he light-heartedly confesses how repentance didn’t work out so well for him.
You can’t talk of reassembly and reincarnation, and the body as vehicle for expressing this, without thinking of this seamless ensemble cast, who take on the episodic nature of this work under Philippe Vialatte’s burnt orange lighting. Using a prop box of little more than scarves, blankets and cloaks to customise Costume Designer’s Oria Puppo’s fire and earth palette, the four actors tell a tale constrained in style and design, but far reaching in its themes, power and emotional clout. Stretches of citrus-coloured fabric function as flames, babies to be thrown in the river, and the Ganga from which a spirit emerges into Carole Karemera’s body, causing the actor to emit agonising and raw screams. As Yudishtira, Jared McNeill’s performance is consistently captivating, his strained grandeur alive in his taut phrasing and sharp, subtle movement; the strength of his posture betrayed by the frequent wavering at the end of sentences. Ery Nzaramba excels as the metamorphosing storyteller, every glance and beckon of the finger communicating an untold wisdom and, while Karemera is most heart-wrenching when communicating her river’s screams, as the pigeon in a short morality tale her coy movements and well-measured sharp blinks bring an outstanding, poetic power to the tale.
This chunk of The Mahabharata is part of something bigger, in more ways than one, and Brook and Estienne use Battlefield as a vehicle for discussing how eternity of time and infinity of space can be found in the smallest corners. From the souls contained in the Ganga, to the stars and moons that lie inside a boy’s stomach, answers to the biggest questions can often be found in small places. The imagination on show here pushes beyond the space of the stage, and permeates the time left after the actors retreat. With its enigmatic conclusion, Battlefield captures the spirit and romance of this Indian saga, translating its otherworldly and spiritual elements to the stage without falling into the easy traps of cultural appropriation or cliché. This is an allusive and emotional play and, against all the storybook fables and lessons humorously and elegantly captured, the beauty and purity of this piece is evident in the tears it causes at something never quite articulated.
Battlefield is on at the Young Vic until 27th February 2016. Click here for tickets.