The longest known poem in the world, the Mahabharata, contains more than 200,000 lines of verse. This epic poem is one of the most important works in Sanskrit, with an importance rivaled only by the relatively short Ramayana, which “only” contains about 24,000 lines. Jean-Claude Carriere’s 9-hour theatrical adaptation of the Mahabharata, which was staged in a limestone quarry in Avignon, France, is also relatively short in comparison. Battlefield, which opened at the Guthrie Theater last weekend, is much shorter still: only 70 minutes long. It is an enrapturing experience woven with themes of war and civil war.
The Battlefield now playing at the Guthrie is a condensed version of Carriere’s Mahabharata created by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne. Some three decades after Brook brought this first epic adaptation to the (quarry) stage, he returns as the director of the condensed Battlefield version. It is a story rendered with subtle, ritualized scenes, directed by Brook in an artistic collaboration with Estienne.
Battlefield is part of Brook’s career endeavor to encompass the origin of theatre and its ability to express “all aspects of human existence.” His work continually demonstrates the essential dynamics between myth, language and ritual. In 1971, he premiered the international production of Orghast at Persepolis, amid the ruins of ancient Persepolis in Iran. An ensemble of four performers uses penetrating dialogue, intimate storytelling and fluid characterizations to develop a metaphor of victory that cannot be distinguished from defeat because of the destruction experienced by both sides. It speaks to our memories of Flanders Field in WWI, the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, or the current Syrian civil war.
The burning desire for war is found extinguished as the play begins. The stage is a big, empty space where the victor, Yudishtira (Jared McNeill), describes the battlefield of a million corpses. He speaks in a hauntingly existential tone bereft of emotion as he acts-out the task of women trying to piece together their dead husbands. It was a conflict so fierce that Brook describes it as a “war of extermination,” the characters awestruck at the devastation they inflicted.
Enter the old blind king (Sean O’Callaghan), who lost a hundred sons in the massacre and must come to terms with his rebel nephew taking power. Yudishtira realizes he is now king, but that is of no consequence if he feels his humanity is unredeemable. Yudishtira and the old blind king work through their miasma of emotion and guilt with Aesop-like fables acted out by the ensemble. Carole Karemera, as the mother of Yudishtira, begins the storytelling with a unique grasp of the oral art that comes through her African cultural heritage. Each story with its animal characters reflects a lesson on human nature and its inexorable tendency to bring disaster.
Throughout the performance and prominently downstage left, Toshi Tuchitori plays a traditional Eastern drum. The solo polyrhythms vary with the play’s action and as the mood of the performance changes. The music has an ancient ambiance quite fitting for a performance based on a Sanskrit poem.
The staging is bare except for scattered piles of wooden sticks. However, the seemingly empty space is filled by the sense of presence brought by each of the four ensemble members. The performers play several parts, changing character by donning a simple piece of cloth or by just changing the look in their eyes.
As per many Brook’s productions, the cast is international in scope. Carole Karemera is an accomplished theatre artist and art activist from Rwanda. Ery Nzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan are from the UK and Jared McNeill is from the United States. The dialogue style is familiar, like a good translation of an ancient Greek drama. However, the fables told during the play have the feeling of India and the Far East.
At one point, the play’s action gently winds down, as the percussive music becomes softer. After a few moments, the audience realizes the performers haven’t moved and the play is at an end. You get the definite feeling that the story itself continues for thousands of years.