In the shadow of death

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 20.01.2017

Over thirty years ago Peter Brook’s staging of The Mahabharata at the Avignon Festival broke all sorts of conventions. There were 21 actors from 17 countries and five musicians who played dozens of Oriental and African instruments. The production was to redefine theatre. It could be seen as a cycle of three plays over three nights or as one all-night nine-hour show going from dusk to dawn. There was a world tour lasting four years.

The Sanskrit epic from thousands of years ago, which at over 100 000 verses, is seen as the longest single poem in world literature, came alive in a limestone quarry. Brook used every theatrical mode at his disposal as well as years of research and travel to transform Hindu myth into universal art: spectacular battles were followed by intimate court scenes. Audiences were overwhelmed.

Now, all those years later, Brook, together with Marie-Hélène Estienne, his long-time assistant, and the dramatist Jean-Claude Carrière, has returned to The Mahabharata, but this time they are concentrating on one particular episode “to create, in the spirit of today, a very essential, very intense piece that speaks about our concerns”. An apocalyptic war has torn the Bharata clan apart: the final battle between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas, who are five brothers, and the Kauravas, who are a hundred brothers all born at the same time, has been fought. Millions of corpses are lying on the battlefield. Yudishtira, the oldest of the Pandavas, is about to be crowned as the new king.

But victory feels like defeat since the waste and suffering are still raw. Two old men, his grandfather and the blind former king Dritarashtra, his uncle who has lost a hundred sons on the opposing side, will serve as his guides. Bridges will be built; trust and mutual respect will bring the two opposing factions together.

Individual stories spin off the main narrative. Wry parables and animal fables mirror human destiny and deal with questions of fate and justice in often playful ways. Tests are set; situations are reversed; destiny rules.

A fatalistic worm is trying to cross a busy road and tells us about his previous incarnation as a rich man; a rather talkative snake argues its way out of responsibility; a materialistic mongoose berates Yudishtira for giving all his worldly goods to the priests rather than to the poor. Dharma punctuates those interludes: If you put your own interests first, you are bound to fail.

There are very simple but incredibly moving moments as well as striking echoes of the starkness of Greek tragedy. And there is, above all, a strange calm around the acceptance of mortality that is central to the show. At times the evening feels slightly static, almost like a recital, though it still impresses through its aesthetic beauty, the hushed minimalism and some luminous acting. Each of the actors plays lots of different roles. Thus, Sean O’Callaghan is particularly moving as Dritarashtra but then morphs into a worm as well as a hunter, while the graceful Carole Karemera is Kunti, Yudishtira’s mother as well as a pigeon and the heartrending Ganga river itself. Ery Nzaramba moves seamlessly from wise to funny, whereas you will remember Jared McNeill, above all, as the victorious yet torn Yudishtira.

The stage is beautifully lit; the only props are a few blankets and wooden poles. Toshi Tsuchitori, who was also part of the first Mahabharata, brilliantly punctuates the show with his drumming until the very end, when a dazzling tableau brings everyone together in a magic moment of silence. You can only hope that by then all audience members have let the various tales sink in and do not start to applaud as soon as the speaking stops! The next cycle of destruction may loom large, yet, ultimately, the refusal to despair triumphs in this low-key and gently distilled piece.

Battlefield was at the Grand Théâtre on 12, 13 and 14 January
Janine Goedert
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