ACT presents an excerpt from Peter Brook's nine-hour "Mahabharata"

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“Battlefield,” prodigious director Peter Brook’s unusual new offering, presents a small portion of the “Mahabharata,” the ancient Sanskrit epic poem about the disastrous war between two branches of a large ruling family.

In 1987, Brook famously presented his nine-hour version of the “Mahabharata” to the acclaim of the New York cognoscenti. Now, at age 92, Peter Brook is back with a 70-minute production that focuses on the aftermath of the final apocalyptic battle of the “Mahabharata” and the chaos and destruction left in its wake.

More of an active poetry reading with four actors and a djembe drummer (Toshi Tsuchitori), than a full-fledged theatrical experience, “Battlefield” solemnly and ponderously explores the true price of victory and loss upon those left behind. The newly triumphant king, Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill), becomes aware that his success, in which he vanquished an unknown brother, and which cost the lives of millions of soldiers on both sides, is in reality a stunning defeat.

A desolate and chastened Yudhishthira, searches for answers with the help of his mother, Kunti (Carole Karemera), the old blind king Dhritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan) and assorted victims and other characters (Ery Nzaramba). He is told a series of meandering animal fables. One, about a snake that kills a child because it is the snake’s destiny, has an understandable message. Others, such as tales about a pigeon and falcon and a worm crossing a road were more obtuse.

These stories might have had more impact had the actors not recited them in a liturgical monotone, which, when added to the archaic language, made the words themselves, not to mention their import, challenging to understand. Although talented, actors Carole Karemera and Ery Nzaramba from Rwanda, added to the language difficulties, as did the theater’s sound problems in general.

Perhaps if “Battlefield” had been produced on a smaller stage, a more affecting ambiance might have been achieved. As it was, the cavernous emptiness of the stage, with only a few sticks in the background, did not serve the actors well. Although the stark visual approach coupled with the actors’ minimalist portrayal emphasized the overall bleakness of war, it was more difficult to react emotionally to the tragedy.
The relevance of “Battlefield” to the current devastation of Syria and other Middle East fields of destruction is compelling. In fact, it is Peter Brook’s stated purpose for resurrecting this portion of the “Mahabharata” at present. And yes, the message of the play is vital. However, the nature of the production itself seems to impede rather than impel the important message.

Emily S. Mendel

©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved

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