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When the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (then the BAM Majestic Theater) opened in 1987, lauded director Peter Brook staged his production of Jean-Claude Carrière’s Le Mahabharata, itself based on the gargantuan Indian epic. This nine-hour play was first performed in France and subsequently appeared at BAM and around the world. Brook returns to the BAM Harvey stage for this year’s Next Wave Festival with Battlefield, an 80-minute condensation of the central story of the Mahabharata. Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, his co-director on this project, have worked on theatrical, television, and film adaptations of the poem throughout their careers, and Brook translated Carrière’s French version into English himself.
The main story of the Mahabharata, on which Battlefield is based, concerns a war between two sides of a dynastic family. The battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas — who make up the poem’s eponymous Bharata family — ends in unfathomable devastation. The poem describes millions of corpses strewn on the ground, some of which, impaled by swords, are left standing up as if still alive because the field is too crowded with the slain for them to fall. Some of the men’s wives try to put their husband’s corpses back together, matching severed heads and limbs to countless torsos, but to no avail; too many of the dead look the same. The old blind King Dhritarashtra (of the Kaurava side) loses all of his 100 sons in the battle. Yudhishthira, the oldest son of the Pandava clan, is one of the few survivors and reluctantly accedes to the throne. Both men are overcome with survivor’s guilt and immeasurable regret over the catastrophe they could have stopped. While exploring the epic’s intricate maze of stories within stories, Battlefield zooms in on Yudhishthira’s spiritual journey, as he learns dharma (duty, virtue, justice) and renounces the world and all its pomp.
In Brook and Estienne’s production, the stage contained little besides a few piles of bamboo and a couple of large cloths. One could say this is a rational response to the limitations of doing the Mahabharata onstage — it’s impossible to depict millions of dead bodies anywhere other than in the audience’s imagination, so why try? For me, however, the spare design proved a distraction, if only because the visual elements of the production felt calculated specifically not to wow. The minimalistic presentation would have been more effective if it had been more extreme, perhaps with no props at all and the characters appearing as if in a void — as BAM’s recent premiere of The Loser by David Lang did so splendidly.
In Battlefield, the actors’ delivery was stilted, as if they were mimicking the slow, ponderous, 1970s Shakespeare productions that used to appear on the BBC, in which every word feels calculated to emphasize the gravity of Great Literature. The problem with those productions, and with this one, is that such delivery narrows the expressive range of an emotionally varied and complex work. The text of Battlefield has some lighter moments that could be truly funny, but even in these scenes the actors plodded through the words as if they were grand recitations. There were a lot of unnecessary pauses. That all four actors (who shift roles with admirable dexterity) speak in the same heavy-handed way points to a directorial choice, and a perplexing one, given the range for which the material called. Brook’s most famous productions were in the 1970s and ’80s, the very time in which that lofty style of Shakespeare (in which Brook participated to great acclaim) was so in vogue, particularly in Britain. It is a style on which he relies too heavily in Battlefield.
One of the production’s most effective elements is the music by Toshi Tsuchitori, who sits on stage and plays a single drum. His music has a simple elegance that still manages to express a wide range of emotions — an achievement not met by the spare visual elements or the actors’ halting speech patterns.
With such powerful source material, and with two directors who have spent many years of their lives working with it, this distilled version of the greatest Sanskrit poem would seem like a sure bet. Maybe my expectations were too high; regrettably, many elements of the production were underwhelming.
The Mahabharata runs about 10 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. An 80-minute version for the stage will necessarily sacrifice a great deal of the story and complexity. Battlefield, however, missed many chances to evoke the expansiveness, the maximalism, and the kitchen-sink inclusiveness of India’s great epic.
Battlefield continues at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through October 9.
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