based on The Mahabharata and the play by Jean-Claude Carrière
adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Capitol Theatre, Singapore

Thirty years after giving Western theatre one of its greatest hits with an epic, nine-hour version of Indian classic The Mahabharata (which was later adapted into a six-hour  television film), legendary director Peter Brook and collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne return to this thrilling saga in a taut 90-minute piece that premiered in Paris before making its way round the world.

The Mahabharata charts, amongst other things, the epic dynastic battle between the five Pandava brothers and their cousins, the Kauravas, and how the latter win the battle at Kurukshetra after twelve years of exile in the forest. Battlefield is set after these thrilling exploits of war and forms the aftermath to this tale, presenting the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill) as the new king in a country ravaged by death and destruction.

Photo Credit: Caroline Moreau

Racked by guilt, Yudhishthira  seeks to make piece with his uncle Dhritarashtra (Sean O'Callaghan), the former king  who witnessed the massacre of his many sons in battle. The conversations between the characters - who also include Carole Karemera as Yudhishthira's mother and Ery Nzaramba  as adviser Krishna - are interspersed by parables drawn from the natural and animal world. This allows the narrative to smoothly enter the realm of storytelling and sees the four actors jump into an assortment of roles, conjuring up many tender and amusing scenes. One moment, we witness a worm trying to slowly cross a road sideways; in another, a mongoose distributes blankets to people around him.

Battlefield features an simple, pared-down aesthetic one immediately associates with the later works of Brook and most recently seen in his elegiac South African drama The Suit in 2013: minimal props, flashes of colour (dusky reds and yellows), live music (performed here by Japanese drummer Toshi Tsuchitori) and a small, versatile cast. Where I struggle is Brook's conscious decision to strip the story down to its very skeleton. Sticks are scattered around the stage but rarely used, the entire affair is infused with an unnerving stillness and despite arguments for universality, seeing this most Indian of tales performed by a cast of one white and three black actors made this play far harder for me to engage with. The intimacy of the performance is also somewhat lost in the cavernous grandeur of the Capitol Theatre; a black box staging would have been ideal.

Photo Credit: Caroline Moreau

Overall, Battlefield is a quiet, restrained exercise that seeks to interrogate the nature of war and what it leaves in its wake. Erupting amidst a world shaken by acts of terrorism in places like Syria, Beirut and Paris, the play's message is one that does not fail to resonate with its audience. The fundamental question Brook asks is how can we continue to live in a world filled with so much pain and suffering. Is our only recourse to lose ourselves in the enchantment of stories and to hope for an enlightenment that enables us to transcend our situation?

In an interview reproduced in the programme, Brook describes his real audience as "Obama, Hollande, Putin and all the presidents" and wonders "how do they see their opponents in this day and age". Indeed, the stories of Battlefield may be thousands of years old but in the world of today, they have an unshakeably political dimension. And theatre may just be the means to enable us to reflect on these issues and, like the beleaguered Yudhishthira, seek a resolution.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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