Minimal. Stripped-bare. Essential. Pure. Questioning. Uncomfortable. Profound. Spiritual. This is what you must expect when you experience a production by Peter Brook, one of the world’s great directors of the last seventy years.
Peter Brook is now ninety-one. He made an international name for himself early in his career for films like “Lord of the Flies” and what was seen as a revolutionary staging in a white box of a dazzling A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the mid-seventies, he has been involved mostly in his own laboratory based in Paris (C.I.C.T.,) examining through theatre-making such questions as, “What is (essential) theatre and how does it communicate universally?”
The burning desire to explore and test this single-minded focus took him to Iran where he and the former poet laureate of England, Ted Hughes, devised a made-up “Ur” language and presented a dusk-to-dawn piece of epic theatre in a festival sponsored by the former Shah.
The quest took Brook in a van to Africa, where the likes of Helen Mirren and the rest of his international company rolled out a carpet in villages and performed Conference of the Birds for audiences who had in all likelihood never seen a western performance and where once again a theatre beyond language was tested.
His work with social anthropologist Colin Turnbull developed the man’s study The Ik as a piece of theatre, which not only performed to the cognoscenti in cultural capitals of the world, but to isolated audiences. My conversations with Peter and his original company members and the dialogues I witnessed in Yugoslavia, New York, London, and in a U.S. maximum-security prison in Minnesota changed the way I was to approach theatre forever.
Every time I have seen the company’s work I feel that the idea of “theatrical” has shorn another layer to become closer to theatre’s essence, like a fine reduction that has been simmering on the stove watched over by a culinary master. I can still see him sitting quietly in a rehearsal, almost as if in contemplation, looking out from his pale blue eyes, saying almost nothing, mostly only gently asking a question. “What is unnecessary?”
Peter Brook discusses Minimalism with Charlie Rose
Thirty years ago, Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière brought a nine-hour epic drama of one of the two great pieces of classical Indian literature, the sacred poem The Mahabharata, to Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM.) Sitting in the audience of the then wreck of a BAM space, I found the piece totally mesmerizing; it’s length alone moved me into another time and space. The international cast included Andrzej Seweryn as Yudhishthira, Mamadou Dioumé as Bhima, Miriam Goldschmidt as Kunti, and long-time collaborator Bruce Meyers as Ganesha/Krishna.
Now Brook and his co-creator Marie-Hélène Estienne, who served as an assistant in the original master work, have revisited The Mahabharata, not to remount the original production but to reexamine the source material for something even closer to the bone. Their sensitivity to the urgent need to address our times is deeply imbedded in the piece.
Battlefield is a work about the aftermath of war and the emptiness of surviving in a world order that has been politically and socially upended. His theater becomes an “empty space” indeed (the title of one of his seminal books) where going forward seems questionable. If so, and how?
The creative team plunges into the sacred poem at the moment that Yudhishthira (in this version played by Sean O’Callaghan) announces that he has lost the war and his one hundred sons and yet he must find his way to embrace his enemy. O’Callaghan enters the stage with a thin bamboo pole tap-tapping as a blind man who has lost his way and speaks with a dry slow monotone, “ To hell with humanity. My hundred sons are dead. Where is justice?…You have to take your nephew the victor in your arms…and help him reign?!”
In the packed auditorium I felt you could hear a pin drop and that we had all been exposed, made vulnerable, and challenged. Earth indeed needs a king to be calm and just. Has this happened before as the text tells us? How many times? And will we come through?
Then unfolds story after story. Each of the four actors taking turns as narrator, while others enter as needed to act out with iconic minimalism, as if teaching us through parable and myth the challenges before us.
This is not the story theater one has come to expect, filled with showy mimicry and broad characterizations. Everything is minimal. Faces are mostly impassive. Gestures are deliberate and slow. Words are delivered dryly so nothing comes between them and the communicating of the ideas.
Ery Nzaramba sits as a dying grandfather on the battlefield under a great tent of an orange cloth as if willing himself to turn into a mountain, the earth itself. In another moment, the actor simply twists a beige scarf into a rope and he becomes a serpent. Carole Karemera never loses her impressive dignity as Kunti, the great woman who at one point in her life consummated with the sun god and gave birth to a baby Karna, recently killed in the great battle. Then suddenly simply by widening her eyes, nothing more, she becomes a pigeon and settles (her chin on a branch) hoping not to be snatched by a hawk, played with just the slightest snarl of predation by O’Callaghan.
All four actors have reined themselves in, whether by personal inclination or to realize the required style it is hard to say. With Brook it is always a collaboration. You start with some sticks of bamboo and wide brightly-colored swathes of cloth and you get on your feet and see what you can make together.
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Cloth becomes a woman’s covering for mourning, a royal sash, a tent of renunciation, and then spoils of war and gifts to the audience. Jared McNeill breaks the fourth wall and asks, “Are you poor?” A taken-aback audience member says, “Sure.” McNeill approaches another. “Do you know anyone that is poor?” It is a difficult and awkward question for some at the Kennedy Center. Who could afford such tickets if they were poor is implied. But generously the actors forgive the privileged people. They hand across their beautiful pashminas. “Perhaps you could find someone who needs this.”
Toshi Tsuchitori is a fifth and key collaborator, who sits throughout the piece with a single funneled drum before him, and he conjures the performers to begin. He leads them through the stories and fills the transitions. This musician is such a master that his rich rhythms go deeper than music, taking us on a spiritual journey.
In the nearly bare space, it feels at one point that Brook is speaking directly to us, in the way one feels Shakespeare speaking through Prospero at the end of a great performance of The Tempest. ”Man’s life is shortened. Death snatches man away. The readiness is the thing most important. Truth is immortality. Truth is immutable, eternal.”
“Do not make wars,” the newly proclaimed leader is told. “Let peace be your aim.” The sacred text gives us such morsels of wisdom. Receiving them today in a theater is like receiving manna.
One becomes aware that the auditorium lights have been raised and lowered periodically. We are lost in the myth by this time. Kunti and Yudhishthira deny themselves even the basics in penance and prepare to walk into the flames of a forest fire. Or is it the final apocalypse? Is it true that this world will be destroyed?
Instead of the boy telling us all we need to know, we hear from Toshi whose drumming crescendos then dissolves into a fast delicate rain. The actors sit on stage in immoveable silence and so do we. In the silence we still listen and we wait, and perhaps we ask, “Is this the end?”
This is theater as meditation. This kind of theater reminds us that it is as necessary as the air we breathe.
Battlefield. Adaptation and direction by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. Music by Toshi Tsuchitori. Costumes by Oria Puppo. Lighting by Philippe Vialatte. With Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, Sean O’Callaghan. Produced by C.I.C.T – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith