Saturday, April 15, 2017

Peter Brook's Battlefield at the Guthrie

I've seldom been in an audience as incredibly rapt and attentive as at last night's production of Peter Brook's Battlefield at the Guthrie Theater.

In 70 minutes, four actors and one musician, on a spare set, armed only with colored robes and sticks, tell a story from The Mahabharata about the aftermath of war and the meaning of time and life.

Jared McNeill, Carole Karemera, Ery Nzaramba
Photo by Caroline Moreau
This production, part of the Guthrie Worldstage Series, is one of the reasons why we are so fortunate to have the Guthrie Theater (under its fabulous new leadership) in the Twin Cities. The opportunity to see a production by the acclaimed director Peter Brook, and to see this show, which premiered at the Young Vic in 2015, with the original cast, is a rare gift indeed.

A bit of background: The Mahabarata is an epic poem that comprises a hundred thousand stanzas which was originally written in Sanskrit, sometime between 400 B.C. and 400 A.D. It's considered to be the longest literary work in existence. About 30 years ago, Peter Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne staged a nine-hour production of The Mahabharata, which was subsequently televised. In 2015, Brook and Estienne returned to this work to create Battlefield.

Carole Karemera, Sean O'Callaghan, Jared McNeill and Ery Nzaramba.
Photo by Caroline Moreau.
According to a 2016 NPR article by Jeff Lunden:
Now, inspired by the civil war in Syria, the 91-year-old director has decided to re-explore a part of that poem — but this time he's thinking small. Brook's new play, Battlefield, starts after a catastrophic war. "We wanted to concentrate on one thing only," he says. " ... What is the position of the great leader who realizes that he has done what he set out to do? He has won."
And from Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj's program note:
At its surface, Battlefield is a story of rival factions of a ruling family struggling with the enormity of their war's destructive toll. At its soul, the show is a gorgeous, subtle plea for unity and a meditation on time, destiny and the meaning of a life fully lived. 
Toshi Tsuchitori
 Photo by Caroline Moreau
I'm not sure I can tell you any more than that about this show. I can only say that this is an incredibly rare opportunity to see a truly great work of theater art by who is considered one of the world's best living theater directors.

Also, I will tell you that I have seldom been more enraptured by a work of theater. At times, I felt almost hypnotized by the performances and the storytelling. It's mesmerizing, and so stripped down. The musical accompaniment, by longtime Brook collaborator Toshi Tsuchitori, playing just one drum, lends the perfect tone to each scene.

And the end? Holy cats, the end was truly stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen.

To wrap it all up, a bit more from Jeff Lunden at NPR:
The director shares one of his favorite parables, about a man in a perilous situation: "Hanging over a chasm, upside down, with a snake waiting to catch him underneath and an elephant about to trample him on the side. And in all this, suddenly, the possibility of tasting for the last time a drop of honey. A drop of honey says something to all of us: that life is worth living, because life is there and it is beyond the horrors."
Don't believe me? Check out the super raves in this trailer: