Peter Brook: ‘Mahabharata’ Is Part of World Heritage

Peter Brook, no stranger to challenges, is known for his groundbreaking productions of ”Marat-Sade” and ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and more lately his version of Bizet’s ”Carmen” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. But for the 60-year-old director, his production of the Indian epic represents a culmination of a lifelong search for theatrical expression of mankind’s greatest dramas and deepest dilemmas.

In his colossal French-language adaptation, of the ”The Mahabharata,” Brook, synthesizing all his previous theatrical inventions, did nothing less than attempt to transform Hindu myth into universalized art, accessible to any culture. This vast enterprise was undertaken by Mr. Brook with a team of close colleagues: the writer Jean-Claude Carriere (who collaborated with Mr. Brook on ”Carmen” and is known for writing such films as ”The Return of Martin Guerre” and ”Danton”), the set and costume designer Chloe Obolensky, the lighting designer Jean Kalman and a company of 21 actors from 16 countries, plus five musicians, under Toshi Tsuchitori’s direction, who play dozens of Oriental and African instruments.

They all visited India – some, including Mr. Brook, several times -and closely studied Hindu scripture, costume, art and music. But the total concept – artistic and philosophical – is that of Mr. Brook.

Although parts of ”The Mahabharata” have been used in Indian dance, song and the ritual Kathakali drama, this is the first time the whole epic has been adapted for the theater. An immense work, 15 times the length of the Bible, believed to have been written in Sanskrit between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, ”The Mahabharata” is the longest single poem in world literature. Consisting of 18 volumes and 90,000 couplets, it is a compilation of the myths, legends, wars, folklore, ethics, history and theology of ancestral India, including the Hindu sacred book, the Bhagavad Ghita. Revered in India but little known in the West, ”The Mahabharata” is to South Asians what the Bible along with the Iliad and the Odyssey are to us.

Thirty years after he mounted the hefted production of the ancient Indian epic “Mahabharata” for audiences world-wide, renowned British stage director Peter Brook – who, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, is inarguably one of the most influential theater personalities of our time – returns with an intimate new interpretation and staging of this timeless tale. But this time, through his poignant new drama, “Battlefield,” Brook takes audiences on a theatrical journey to post-world war uncertainties; how after winning the monstrous battle, King Yudhishtira surveys the battlefield and seeks to find a just way to rule.

“Mahabharata is a really great, great work which we know contains almost everything but that also contains the worst in human kind,” Brook, now, 92, who is currently in San Francisco, Calif., where “Battlefield” will be staged at the American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through May 21, told the media. “All the different phases of human history, they were all in the Mahabharata. In India, even today there isn’t a politician who doesn’t end his speech with somehow using a quotation from the Mahabharata and the Bhagwad Gita. It continually comes back in India today and I think it’s natural for us to feel that not just India, this is a part of the world heritage…at a time the world needs the wisdom the king from old, old ancient India gave.”

In the first of the four yugas, Brook stated that “India was rapidly at the peak of the first yuga when the rest of the world, Europe everywhere were just struggling to try to find a great sense to meaning to life.” Winning a war, Brook said, comes with a greater responsibility.

The 70-minute drama, which is in contrast to the nine-hour production Brook staged in 1985, followed by a film version directed by him in 1989, sticks to minimalism and maximum use of space onstage, to convey the point. Reiterating that “Battlefield” “isn’t a spectacle,” Brook said that they were “trying to take a short path and bring the story to life as intensely as possible, for that you need concentration and you take away what’s not necessary.” “Battlefield” is adapted and directed by Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne.

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