With blood and the realities of war almost at our doorstep, it seems right Peter Brook’s epic Mahabharata finds its way back to us 30 years after its original staging. Described as one of the greatest and most memorable productions in theatre history by the ones who witnessed it, Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s work of the great Sanskrit asks the questions that roam at the bottom of our hearts: what is the meaning of our existence and how do we overcome the tragedies in our world?
What is left after the world is destroyed and when death breathes into our backs? Distilling Brook’s 11-hour immersion in Indian fables, Battlefield presents the end of the epic and focuses on the family after they’ve destroyed the order of their world. A great war tears the Bharata family apart, and the two sides, the Kaurava and the Pandava, destroy one another until the Pandavas win. With millions of bodies covering the ground the eldest Pandava prince, Yudishtira (Jared McNeill), questions the actions of his family and its rivals. He tries to unravel his own responsibility for the disaster before accepting the responsibility of becoming king. He seeks answers from the old king, Dritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan), his mother (Carole Karemera), and grandfather (Ery Nzaramba) as he journeys through the ancient parables of animals and life before finding the peace within himself to carry on.
Staged in a bare space with an earthy orange covering the floor, only accompanied by bamboo sticks, the Young Vic is transformed into a dry, hot world of burning sun after disaster has struck. The atmosphere has the other-worldly sense of myth mixed with a simplicity that makes the imagination work hard. Brook strips the visual world of Battlefield so that the focus lies with the lyrical language, the rhythm of the drum, and the stories and messages within. For a brief moment we are not in a theatre full of middle class onlookers, but involved in a tale of acceptance and resignation; a fairy-tale of the East.
Brook’s flair for writing is striking. The fluidity of the language and the vivid images the actors create are what drive this performance. The parables particularly strike us as humorously affecting, as a few pieces of material become a trapped snake, a worm trying to cross a road, or a wailing spirit of the river. The actors paint the rich world for us with warmth and mystery which seems so far away from our London life.
Philippe Vialatte lights their world beautifully and with the accompaniment of Toshi Tsuchitory’s beating drum, the enigma of Brook’s production expands. Brook’s style is clear as ever and with the language of Battlefield so beautifully enriched, we do get the sense of being transported somewhere closer to a human essence. However, as the production has been cut out from the original 11-hour epic we lose a sense of the overall arch of the story, and as the battle is being reported on we are left with a sense of disconnection. The audience are left to question the ways of the world and find the order within themselves without truly knowing the starting point. For this reason the parables are the parts that stand out equally in humour, execution and meaning. However, the lives of the Bharata family are lost and seem more like a faint story of the past than the reason for the journey towards resolution. That said, with Brook being such an inspirational figure for the theatre today it is somewhat special watching his work for yourself.
Battlefield is playing at the Young Vic until 27 February. For more information and tickets, see www.youngvic.org