Peter Brook’s Battlefield

On Thursday at the NCPA, I watched one of the last shows of Battlefield, Peter Brook's return to the Mahabharata. Thirty years ago when he and his team, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Jean-Claude Carrière  carved a nine-hour play out of the epic, they were younger and full of hope for the future. Today Brook is 90 and there is an interminable war raging in Syria that has rendered millions homeless and brought to the world's notice the most barbaric acts that human beings have ever perpetrated on their fellows. Brook's own adopted home, Paris, was attacked twice in one year, leaving 142 innocent people dead. The time was right to look at the aftermath of  Kurukshetra to see what sense could be made of human life in the context of war.

Battlefield  is a very small, still, evenly-paced, contemplative play, devoid of action. The stage is stark, covered in ochre, a colour that suggests the glare of the sun and an arid earth. The props are sparse, just a scatter of sticks and a few lengths of colourful cloth that are made to stand for everything from a river to the newborn baby, Karna. Matching this sparseness is the actors' economy of gesture and movement. Dressed in dark robes relieved by scarves and blanket shawls of lighter shades, they speak their lines deliberately, energetically, in tones uninflected by emotion. The only sound accompaniment that goes with the play like a sympathetic companion, is the Japanese drum (Toshi Tsuchitori).        

The Kurukshetra war is over. The blind Dhritarashtra (Sean O'Callaghan ), supported by a stick, asks himself why he allowed the war to happen. He, the father of a hundred sons, now killed, could have said no. But Duryodhana would utter only one word, "War, war, war." O'Callaghan says the word softly the first two times; then spits it out in a loud explosion of rage. There is only one other time in the play when a voice rises above speech level. Kunti (Carole Karemera), having done with advising Yudhishthira to do his ritual duty by his half-brother, Karna, killed in the battle, covers her face with her hands and emits a long howl of anguish and despair. She howls for every mother who has lost a son in a war.

At the centre of the 65-minute play is Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill). Riven by guilt for what he has done, he is looking for escape from what he sees around him. Thousands of dead bodies litter the earth. All his cousins and their men are killed. Carrion animals and birds hover around, waiting to pounce on them. This is not victory, Yudhishthira says. This is defeat.  Where can he go from here? What will come after this war? A wise man answers, "Another war".

"Where will the other war be? On the battlefield or in my heart?"

"I don't see a difference."

Yudhishthira continues to ask questions, many of them faux naif. The answers he gets are often platitudes pronounced as profound truths. "No good man is entirely good. No bad man is entirely bad." I squirm.

Meanwhile Bheeshma (Ery Nzaramba),  lying on his bed of nails waiting to die, tells Yudhishthira he must rule as a just king. Questions of justice, guilt and kingly responsibility are answered in a series of fables. Spiked with wry, sometimes mischievous humour, they are not always enacted as elegantly as one would have wished. The most universally relevant fable is of the worm, desperate to escape the wheels of an oncoming chariot. Why? What is its life worth? Nothing to the world perhaps, but everything to the worm.

The story of the snake that has killed a child proposes the philosophy of destiny. Although many find in it the ultimate answer to the meaning of life and death, I militate against its fatalism. Is the snake to be punished for killing the child? No, because Yama made him kill it. Is Yama responsible then? No. Time is the guilty one. Time refutes the charge saying the child's death was brought about by all three of them working together as executors of a grand plan, destiny. So destiny puts war into men's hearts? So men have no choice? So they have no power to stop what is meant to happen from happening? Then all hope dies.

Fortunately, that's not how Battlefield ends. Life re-asserts itself. Tsuchitori drums out its primal power. Rising to a crescendo, the drum fades into silence, leaving the auditorium echoing with its reverberations.

Published On : 06-03-2016