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Death and grief in Peter Brook's newest play Battlefield

Legendary director Peter Brook returns to the world of The Mahabharata after 30 years for his new play

Death and grief begin Peter Brook's newest play, with a king counting those killed in the long struggle that left him in power.

"A field of endlessness. Millions dead," says the 90-year-old British theatre director, paraphrasing the opening monologue of Battlefield in his airy, sunlit living room off the Place Vendome in Paris.

"What I find unbelievable is the statistics used at the time of the Mahabharata, statistics of several million people dead. Even in the sense of overpopulated India in these days, unbelievable."

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Equally unbelievable is that Brook, with Battlefield, returns to the world of his career-defining production of The Mahabharata, 30 years after he condensed an epic poem a dozen times the length of the Bible into a nine-hour spectacle - and then refused to do the same for any other traditional saga.

Beginning at the very end of the Mahabharata, Battlefield is a tight 90-minute, four-actor show co-commissioned by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and currently the talk of theatre circles around the world.

It opened last month at Paris' Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook helmed from the 1970s to the late noughties and will be staged at the Capitol Theatre in Singapore from Nov 17 to 21.

Brook, in his seven-decade career, has redefined expectations of how Shakespeare should be performed, stripped the opera Carmen of gaudy costumes to its bare essentials and converted neurologist Oliver Sacks' research on mental disorders into high performance art.

Yet, to many, his name is synonymous with The Mahabharata he staged in 1985 with a team that included Battlefield co-director Marie-Helene Estienne. The source material, composed between 400BC and 400AD, describes a dynastic struggle for power between two royal clans, the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas, and contains war, murder, political intrigue, multiple romances and the long philosophical poem titled the Bhagavad Gita, which Hindus consider holy.

For a director who insists he forgets his productions as soon as they stop showing, Brook remembers The Mahabharata well. He compares the experience to adapting "the complete works of Shakespeare", recalling years of research during which he and his team went to India to watch traditional productions of the Mahabharata in cities from Madras in the south to Calcutta in the east, from kathakali dance performances to devotional recitations in ashrams.

"This was something like the complete works of Shakespeare that India had kept possessively. Done in every part of India, but never allowed to travel. We felt it our duty to say, 'Sorry, India, this isn't only yours,'" he says.

"We tried to give it, with all the means of our theatre, Western theatre, a wider audience. Maybe we couldn't do it justice, but we could give a real first impression, make people want to know more."

Brook's The Mahabharata was first staged at the Avignon Festival in France, then went on a world tour and, in 1989, was distilled into a six-hour film.

In contrast to that epic spectacle, Battlefield is an inward-looking production set after the climactic battles towards the end of the story, when the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, has become king.

Racked by guilt and grief at the high cost of his victory, he lacks the courage to rule until he makes peace with the former king, also his uncle, whose sons he has killed.

Brook says he came to the play naturally, given the nightly news of war and conflict around the world.

"With Battlefield, the theme that goes through to the end is, 'The world will be destroyed, we can't stop it.' These are cycles of nature, cosmic cycles, who are we to say, 'stop' ?"

He leans forward. "So what is our choice? The Mahabharata tells us, 'Don't despair. Don't give way to the pleasure of self-pity or lamentation.' Lamentation is useful to get something out of you. It should make it possible to see what is something useful, an action you can take, useful not just for you, but also for other people."

Accepting death is at the heart of the show in more ways than one. Just as rehearsals began in July, Brook lost Natasha Parry, his wife of 64 years and mother of his grown son and daughter.

The loss haunts the edges of our conversation. A reminder that Battlefield is coming to Singapore makes Brook mention his wife, then pause, eyes closed for a minute, before he is able to continue. Parry's father lived in Singapore for many years (see story above) and Brook would like to visit. "I've never been - to my great regret - but it isn't possible," he says.

It is easier to speak of theatre. We sit in cushioned chairs near bookshelves where a volume of Japanese Death Poems stands out, those often stoic meditations on life written by samurai. Brook chooses his seat over sitting at the central table cluttered with pill boxes in anticipation of a home visit from a nurse.

"That table is my necessity, not my style," he says, in a twinkling reference to The Empty Stage, his 1968 text about the use of space and stripped-down theatre still devoured by students around the world.

"'Style', that horrible word. Any author, any artist who becomes self-conscious that 'I have my style' makes rubbish. Young people, above all, who think they can imitate style and get the same results, they are cheating themselves."

He thinks the best artists, directors and actors - for the last, he cites Paul Scofield whom he directed in a 1962 production and 1971 film adaptation as a prickly King Lear - have within them an empty space untouched by the demands of making a living or thought of critics and reviews.

He is full of praise for the cast of Battlefield, picked by Estienne - Jared McNeill (who plays Yudhishthira), Carole Karemera (Yudhishthira's mother), Ery Nzaramba (adviser Krishna), Sean O'Callaghan (the former king), as well as other figures from The Mahabharata.

"They all have the same feeling, it goes fast when there is a feeling," he says.

"A great actor or a young person who is great because they haven't been cluttered up, there is a space, an emptiness on the inside of this brilliant mechanism, this brilliant marionette. That's what makes it possible for the same intuition to go through them. We've never had a group more harmonious."

Despite the title, harmony is the impression he hopes Battlefield leaves, though he first makes it very clear that he does not think a director has a duty to convey a message.

He thinks of himself more as a "team coach", leading actors towards their best and then retiring to the sidelines to watch.

"What we can do is make a tiny space that exists for one or two hours. In this space of time, when the audience came in, they were Malaysians, Singaporeans, Chinese, they were so different and could easily be in conflict. But when they get up, you hope that for one moment, unity is not an idea, not an ideal, but a human possibility.

"We saw this with the Magic Flute," he says, smiling at a memory of his 2011 production of Mozart's opera.

"People come in with everyday problems, they are tired, but you can see for a moment at the end something mysterious. Hope, courage, something beyond words is renewed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Back to the Battlefield'. Print Edition | Subscribe