In step with Destiny
Peter Brook speaks warmly about traveling outside of Europe with a group of actors in the early 1970s. This group would eventually form the core of the International Centre for Theatre Research, Brook’s company based in Paris. The touring offered an opportunity to explore how theater works in communities that may never have seen a play, skit or any other theatrical performance.
The troupe began performing in the Middle East but eventually moved to and through Saharan Africa. Sometimes the stage was simply a rug thrown down on the sand.
What Brook learned then surely is the basis of his latest production, Battlefield, currently playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Adapted with his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne from the 1985 play written by another longtime collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière, Battlefield takes a section of the Mahabharata, and presents it as a series of stories told by four actors with the simplest of props in the most barren and open of stages.
Originally an oral poem, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem, believed to be dated from the third century B.C. and set down in Sanskrit in the fourth century A.D. It is part of the stream of mythologized stories that tell of the history of a brutal war between two rival branches of one family. It finds its analog in the stories of the Greek Olympians versus the Titans, the Celtic Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians, the Nordic Aesir and Vanir.
Battlefield takes place after the war. The losses have been staggering. The deposed blind king Dhritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan) weeps over the loss of his 100 sons, and the brutality of the war. And Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill), who has won the battle, confirms that, after seeing the carnage of millions, his victory has become a defeat. He wants to abandon the throne he has just won.
Worse yet his mother Kunti (Carole Karemera) reveals that Yudhishthira has unknowingly killed his own brother, whom she had set adrift in a stream at his birth and who was found and raised by the enemy. Dhritarashtra tells the distraught new king to visit his grandfather Bhishma (Ery Nzaramba) who is waiting to die. Bhishma will answer Yudhishthira’s doubts, and provide solace and instruction.
Bhishma answers Yudhishthira’s questions with stories: It is not Yudhishthira who has killed his brother, but Destiny who was the murderer. He tells the story of a snake who kills a child, but cannot be held culpable for his acts. When Yudhishthira asks if the war was just, Bhishma tells the story of a king who tries to save a pigeon by sacrificing his own flesh. Then Yudhishthira asks if the dead will have a happy afterlife, and Bhishma tells the story of a worm who loved his life and futilely tried to avoid the wheels of a chariot. The theatrical charm of the stories lies not only in the directness of the storytelling but also in the fluidity with which the actors transform into different characters in each story – a snake, a dove, a worm. And in the use of simple props – only two sticks and a heap of colored blankets – to aid each story or change a character.
More abstract agents – Death and Time – also are portrayed. In one scene an actor may be Death and in another a pigeon. Destiny is a major character named, though not portrayed, in the play.
There are forces the play insists, as does the Mahabharata, that are beyond our comprehension, and certainly beyond our control. In this pared-down enactment, the portrayal of death, time and destiny becomes emphatic. And there must be some satisfaction for this 92-year-old director and magician of the stage to be able to so directly face and address the forces in life that hold so much of its mystery and provoke so many of our fears and longing.
Introducing and ending the play was the percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori, whose remarkable drumming seemed to catch the very beat of existence.
– Jaime Robles
Battlefield continues at the Geary Theater until May 21. For information and tickets, visit act-sf.org, or call 415-749-2228.
Photo: Peter Brook’s “Battlefield” currently at A.C.T.’s The Geary Theater. Photo by Pascal Victor/ ArtComArt.