Sunday, May 28, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Going On" (on Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's Battlefield, based on The Mahabharata, by Jean-Claude Carrière)

going on
by Douglas Messerli

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne adaptation (from the play, The Mahabharata, by Jean-Claude Carrière) and directors Battlefield / Beverly Hills, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the performance I attended was the matinee on Saturday, May 27, 2017

After productions in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere, Peter Brook’s most recent work, Battlefield, has now moved in for a short, 4-day run at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.


      In some respects this seems less like a new work than a kind extension, or epilogue, to Brook’s epic 1987 work The Mahabharata, a nine-hour spectacle that had such a large cast that, when it was performed in Los Angeles, it was staged at the Raleigh film sound studio.

      Like that epic-event, in this new Brook worked with long-term collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, adapting the play by the noted writer Jean-Claude Carrière (who collaborated with Luis Buñuel on several films and wrote the scripts for dozens of others, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Tin Drum, and Valmont); but as the years have passed Brook and Estienne have shifted their focus from large to small, moving increasingly to a kind minimalist purity.

       Battlefield runs just over 1-hour, and its sets consist primarily of few slender wooden poles lined up in a row along the back of the stage; there are only four actors, dressed primarily in colorful robes which they don to differentiate the various roles they undertake. Instead of the large chorus of instruments employed in The Mahabharata, there is a single drummer, Toshi Tsuchitori, who performed as well in that earlier production.

       Yet for all of this stripping away of extraneous detail, Battlefield does not feel simplistic or constrained. In fact, it carries with it all the terrifying details the great battle before it which has killed millions, including nearly all of Yudhishthira’s (Jared McNeill), family, along with his greatest enemy, whom his mother Kunti (Carole Karemera) reveals early in the play was actually his brother, born with her in a liaison with the sun.

       Yudhishthira, overwhelmed with the grief of all those deaths, is determined to enter the woods in penance for his destruction of so many lives, but his father (Sean O’Callaghan) and his mother insist he must carry on as the new King, suggesting that he visit his grandfather, the elderly and soon-to-die Dritarashtra (Ery Nzaramba), who, in a series, of parables and gnomic statements, impresses upon the his grandson the cyclic nature of war and peace, of love and violence. What has just happened will ultimately happen again and again, and is not entirely the fault of those involved but simply a product of their destinies. Much as in Beckett’s works, Yudhishthira is a man who cannot “go on,” but must go on nonetheless.


     Finally convinced to take up the crown, Yudhishthira gives away all his personal goods and wealth to the priests, but is advised, instead, by his royal counsel, to give everything to the poor. One of the most charming episodes of the play is when, after gathering up all the robes upon the stage, the counsel attempts to give them away to the poor, a difficult thing to do to the front-row patrons of the Beverly Hills theater. Giving up on asking whether any them of poor, the counsel asks only if they might know someone is poor.

       Other crises follow, and there are further engaging parables, one between Destiny and Time, who argue about a snake that just killed a child; Time wants to kill the snake, but Destiny successfully argues that the snake was only doing what a snake does and therefore should be allowed to escape alive.

      In another such parable, a worm is terrified to cross a road, desiring to remain alive in the world, even though he, in his former life a cheating man, has been punished by becoming just who he is. Time argues that he has no choice but to cross the road, even if a speeding chariot might crush him, and the worm is convinced to move forward; he is, of course, crushed.

      In a third such scenario, a just prince, after promising to save a pigeon, gives away parts of his own body equal to the size of the pigeon to a falcon who demands to feast upon his prey. Having finally given up his entire body, both the falcon and the pigeon praise the now dead prince as being the most just man in the universe.

       There is, in short, no answers provided for the horrible events that The Mahabharata chronicle; there is only the consolation of moving forward. While his mother and father determine to do penance by moving off into the woods, to live on roots and fruits, Yudhishthira has no choice but to rule for the 36 years that have been pre-ordained, and to do the very best he can do in his position.

       After all the roar of the battlefield, his rule is a time of silence, of sorrow, of regret, and reunification—essons we can all use now as we once again hear the refrains of  “us” and “them,” of the differences between people who are, after all, simply our brothers.

       What Brook’s new work reveals is that, after the smoke has cleared and the bodies carried off, there can never be losers and winners; only fate itself remains. Lamentations have no meaning; only the knowledge of what life is and isn’t matters to those given the task to go on living.

       If this play is simple in its storytelling, it is made profound by the brilliant acting the entire cast. With their quiet voices, their every word was clearly to be heard, and only the beat of life played out on Tsuchitori’s drum had the ability to drown out their musings. But that is, obviously, life’s prerogative, as it gradually kills off all of the fears, absurdities, and contemplations of the living.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2017

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