There are few living theater directors who can convince audiences to stay up all night watching the staging of a Sanskrit poem. But 30 years ago, director Peter Brook did just that. He put on what came to be known as one of the great theater events of the 20th century: The Mahabharata. It was nine hours long, and it was epic.
Now, inspired by the civil war in Syria, the 91-year-old director has decided to re-explore a part of that poem — but this time he's thinking small. Brook's new play, Battlefield, starts after a catastrophic war. "We wanted to concentrate on one thing only," he says. " ... What is the position of the great leader who realizes that he has done what he set out to do? He has won."
The winner is Yudishtira, a prince who is about to become a king. After the battle, he's overwhelmed by guilt. "This victory is a defeat," Yudishtira says. "[The] battlefield is covered by endless heaps of corpses."
He wants to retreat into the forest to live a life of penance. But, Brook says, "You have to live [up] to the responsibility of a person who's won, which is even greater than the responsibility of a person who has lost."
Battlefield looks at death and destiny, and the cyclical nature of war and peace. And it does so with just four actors, some different colored shawls, a few sticks and a drummer. "We're doing it with a tiny group who are collectively one storyteller," Brook says. "And that makes it possible to do what a storyteller can do, which is both open up an infinitely large cosmos ... and something about the human problems."
Drummer Toshi Tsuchitori tells the story as much as the actors do. He's been working with Brook for 40 years and was an integral part of the original Mahabharata, creating music for the production and leading a band of five. This time, it's just him playing an African drum. He sits at the side of the stage, punctuating the actors' observations on war with drum beats that can be ferocious; or underscoring a parable about destiny with delicacy. Tsuchitori says every performance of Battlefield is different: He improvises based on where the show plays (it has toured all over the world) and the feeling in the room.
Battlefield is only about an hour long, but Peter Brook says it's stuffed with parables from The Mahabharata; "the most extraordinary powerful, passionate and great ideas about truth, about life, about death," he says.
The director shares one of his favorite parables, about a man in a perilous situation: "Hanging over a chasm, upside down, with a snake waiting to catch him underneath and an elephant about to trample him on the side. And in all this, suddenly, the possibility of tasting for the last time a drop of honey. A drop of honey says something to all of us: that life is worth living, because life is there and it is beyond the horrors."
That's just the kind of story Brook has been telling audiences for more than 70 years.
Battlefield is touring to the following U.S. cities:
- Sept. 29 – Oct. 9, 2016: Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
- March 24 – 28, 2017: Wallis Annenberg Center, Beverly Hills, Calif.
- March 29 – April 2, 2017: The Kennedy Center, Washington
- April 5 – 8, 2017: Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago
- April 13 – 23, 2017: Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
- May 26 – June 21, 2017: American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco