Peter Brook's Battlefield: A quiet epic

(From left) Actors Jared McNeill, Sean O’Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba (seated) and Carole Karemera are an outstanding ensemble in Battlefield, directed by theatre legend Peter Brook.
(From left) Actors Jared McNeill, Sean O’Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba (seated) and Carole Karemera are an outstanding ensemble in Battlefield, directed by theatre legend Peter Brook. PHOTO: CAROLINE MOREAU

Battlefield moves with simple, powerful storytelling

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, it takes only 70 minutes to display storytelling at its finest and a command of the dramatic form that leaves one breathless.

In Brook's original theatrical rendering of the 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. 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' conviction that the slightest gesture speaks volumes.

Battlefield is about confronting death, living with grief and the sad realisation that the world will never be the same but will still go on. It is Brook returning to his greatest artistic triumph and exploring the end of a life in the same year 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 one another dearly.

  • REVIEW / THEATRE

  • PETER BROOK'S BATTLEFIELD

    Co-produced by Singapore Repertory Theatre/Capitol Theatre/Tuesday

  • BOOK IT / PETER BROOK’S BATTLEFIELD

  • WHERE: Capitol Theatre

    WHEN: Today and tomorrow, 8pm; Saturday, 3 and 8pm

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

Battlefield is a space inside the larger world of the Mahabharata, deeply rewarding to those familiar with the text and tantalising for others who can glimpse the outline of a larger story. So the lukewarm response on opening night here 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 show, the audience leapt to its feet, demanding encores. Perhaps it was the nature of that theatre, where most viewers in the stall were at eye-level with the actors, allowing a more intimate interaction. 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 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 from the role of Yudhishthira, letting the words ring in the space created so the audience can consider their weight. He comes alive in his secondary roles within the parables, as do the other actors. O'Callaghan transforms from tragic, blind old man to bloodthirsty falcon, while Karemera's darting eyes and quivering form speak eloquently of her part as prey.

Props are minimal: low blocks, bamboo poles and coloured scarves that the actors shed and don with their assumption of different roles.

I was reminded of street theatre in India where performers use similarly simple aids. A snap of 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 an imperious old woman. Through it all, percussion from Toshi Tsuchitori changes the mood, and 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 circular rhythms of relentless time, inescapable destiny and the cycles of death and renewal that the characters must recognise and, finally, accept.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Quiet epic'. Print Edition | Subscribe