The Mahabharata is an inexhaustible work. The Sanskrit epic poem – the longest in the world – is both a historical and a devotional text. It records the Kurukshetra War of the 3rd century BCE, relates the life of Krishna and contains the Bhagavad Gita, explaining concepts ranging from dharma to yogic philosophy. Peter Brook’s stage version was always staggering : 8 years to develop, 11 hours of running time, a small army of actors, and a 4-year world tour. Like – or perhaps because of – its source material, Brook’s Mahabharata keeps getting new readings and new lives. After a TV mini-series, a film, and a DVD release, now there is Battlefied, Brook’s 70-minute distillation of both the epic text and his epic work. What the Bhagavad Gita is to the Mahabharata, Battlefield is to Brook’s magnum opus.
So much so that the show’s appearance in BAM’s Next Wave is the occasion for a retrospective of Brook’s cinematic oeuvre, appearances by Brook himself and a photographic homage to the Harvey Theater, which Brook’s Mahabharata inaugurated 30 years ago. There are plenty of ghosts in Battlefield, and not just the ones who haunt the living in the Sanskrit text.
Brook, his four actors (both old and new to Brook’s International Center for Theatre Research: Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, Sean O’Callaghan) and the ever faithful Toshi Tsuchitori (from the original Mahabharata, on percussion) deliver magisterially on expectations. Brooks’ signature empty space of an exquisitely lit, unadorned stage is the setting for diamond-sharp performances that are cadenced like a sutra chant. There’s nothing in the least bit esoteric or precious; this is the storyteller’s circle where little is needed – some colorful scarves, bamboo rods and the physical presence of the marvelous cast – to help us see a fearful pigeon awaiting its fate, a worm slowly advancing across a road, a prince surveying a field carpeted with bodies, a man’s soul as it takes leave of the body. The precision and harmony of the five performers are exemplary and perfectly matched to the gravity and timelessness of the Mahabharata’s themes. Experiencing Battlefield is like watching the steady motion of waves on a shore, advancing effortlessly to the point of high tide, when the depth and power of the ocean suddenly become manifest to those on land.
Battlefield condenses the four books of The Mahabharata that focus on the aftermath of the Kurukshetra War, a dynastic struggle waged by opposing branches of one family, and its famous question of a “just war.” The theme was always an undercurrent in Brook’s Mahabharata, created in the shadow of Vietnam. At the risk of summarizing and oversimplifying the action, it’s worth noting, in addition to the excellent performances, the considerable task of reducing an epic of such complex dimensions into a measured, coherent, yet richly profound short play that includes both narrative, action and allegory. Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne can only have achieved this feat through intimate knowledge of both their source material and their purpose.
At the close of the war, King Dritarashtra, the patriarch of the losing family, must hand power over to the sole remaining prince on the victorious side, his nephew, Prince Yudishtira. Both agree the war was not worth its costs, but are powerless to turn back the clock. Yudishtira hesitates to accept the crown until his grandfather persuades him that as justice is the duty of a king, his accession to the throne will begin a period of peace. This is small comfort, however, to Dritarashtra and his sister, Yudishtira’s mother, who will seek their deaths in the forest after a period of ritual purification, leaving the new king alone. Is one action more “just” than the other: to carry on in one’s responsibilities for the public good or to quit the imperfect world of men to attain redemption? And how should power be held, or shared?
Brook leaves these issues open by having his wonderfully versatile actors engage the audience on a similarly pointed question. At 91, Brook is a master of his art, and as great masters from philosophy to martial arts know, dialogue is the path to critical thinking which is the way to knowledge. Battlefield may tell of a horrific conflict and chastise the vanity of mankind, but we emerge from the Harvey Theater feeling as though we have glimpsed dharma.