Art of story-telling at its finest in Peter Brook's Battlefield

Battlefield, directed by Peter Brooks, explores the dynastic struggle for power between the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas.
Battlefield, directed by Peter Brooks, explores the dynastic struggle for power between the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas. PHOTO: CAROLINE MOREAU

Peter Brook's Battlefield

Co-produced by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Capitol Theatre/ Nov 17

It is said that Peter Brook's The Mahabharata, his nine-hour adaptation of the epic Indian poem 30 years ago, displayed all his mastery and understanding of theatre. In Battlefield, directed by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, his assistant on The Mahabharata, it takes only 70 intense minutes to display storytelling at its finest and a command of the dramatic form that leaves one breathless.

In Brook's original theatrical rendering and six-hour film version of the dynastic struggle for power between the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas, arrows rained, fire roared and actors wore sumptuous regalia. In Battlefield, actors mostly wear black and all that is required is for Sean O'Callaghan as the blind old king Dhritarashtra and Carole Karemera as his sister-in-law and guide Kunti to turn their faces towards a red wall and one feels the heat of the forest fire both have determined to die in. Such is the actors' utter conviction in their roles that the slightest gesture or movement speaks volumes.

Battlefield is about confronting death, living with grief and the sad realisation that the world will never again be the same but will still go on in spite of all that has been lost. It is Brook returning to his greatest artistic triumph and exploring the end of a life in the same year that he lost his wife of six decades. It is about the cost of a war that tore a family apart and the impossibility of putting the pieces back together again, even though the survivors still love each other dearly.

Battlefield is a space inside the larger world of the Mahabharata, deeply rewarding to those familiar with the text and horde of characters and tantalising for others who can glimpse the outline of a larger story and be certain of more rewards with a little research. So the lukewarm response on opening night in Singapore was surprising in contrast to my experience watching the play last month in Brook's Parisian space, the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. At the end of that performance, which was in English with French surtitles, the audience leapt to its feet and demanded encores. Perhaps it was the nature of the theatre in France, where most viewers in the stall were at eye-level with the actors, allowing more intimate interaction between audience and performance. Perhaps it was the sound on Tuesday: in spite of amplification, it was hard to hear the actors and I was seated in the sixth row.

Battlefield is a dense distillation of one of the longest poems in the world, so every word of dialogue is important. The text is almost a verbatim English rendering of the ancient Sanskrit, with the script moving between the straightforward narrative of the victorious king Yudhishthira finding the cost of his kingdom too high, and the parables told to nudge him back towards his destiny.

In obedience to Brook's fondness for "empty space" Jared McNeill subtracts himself entirely from the role of Yudhisthira, letting the words ring in the space created so the audience can consider their weight and import. He comes alive in his secondary roles within the parables, as do the other three actors on stage. Body language transforms O'Callaghan from tragic, blind old man to bloodthirsty falcon as the script demands, while Karemera's darting eyes and silent, quivering form speak eloquently of her part as prey.

No artifice is needed with such pure art on stage. Props are minimal: low blocks, bamboo poles and coloured scarves that the actors shed and don in time with their assumption of different roles.

I was reminded of street theatre in India, where performers use similarly simple aids, or the rakugo storytellers of Japan and their all-purpose fans. A snap of yellow cloth and Ery Nzaramba is a dying warrior narrating a parable to inspire a faltering king. By winding the cloth around and over his arm, he becomes the imperious old woman who is the subject of the warrior's story.

Throughout it all, percussion from Toshi Tsuchitori changes the mood, warning or inciting the audience until the time when one realises that the beat, too, is part of the play.

In Hindu mythology, Shiva drums the cosmos into existence and destroys it. Similarly, the drum on stage is text and metaphor, pounding out the circular rhythms of relentless time, inescapable destiny and the cycles of death and renewal that the characters must recognise and finally, accept.

akshitan@sph.com.sg

Book it/Peter Brook's Battlefield

WHERE: Capitol Theatre

WHEN: Nov 18, 19 and 20, 8pm ; Nov 21, 3 and 8pm

ADMISSION: $78, $88 and $108 for 8pm shows; $48, $68 and $88 for 3pm show from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)