When Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata hit the stage and screen in the mid-1980s, it was taken to task for being appropriative and orientalist. (Google “peter brook’s the mahabharata and orientalist.” I’ll wait. ) When I was eleven- or twelve-years-old, I watched the screen adaptation which starred Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi and Mamadou Dioumé as Bhima. Even then, I remember being both enthralled by this adaptation which used a Western dramatic paradigm and a multicultural cast, and angry and disappointed by its simplification and very selective evocation of the cultural and religious context of the Hindu epic.
Decades later, Brook is revisiting The Mahabharata. His new play, Battlefield, focuses on one section of the epic, dealing with the aftermath of a military conflict. Here, Singapore Repertory Theater, in co-production with Young Vic Theatre, Les Théâtres de la ville de Luxembourg, PARCO Co. Ltd/Tokyo, Grotowski Institute, Théâtre de Liège, C.I.R.T., and Attiki Cultural Society (tbc), premiered Battlefield on Tuesday at the beautifully-restored Capitol Theatre. What was staged last night was Parisian company Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s production, adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne and starring Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan and musician Toshi Tsuchitori. (I was, for some reason, under the impression that this was a locally-directed, locally-cast production from the press materials I had received.)
Over time, I’ve become wary of criticism which insists on a single authentic version of anything but, before the performance, I told my theatre companion that I still had mixed feelings about its casting—Karemera, McNeill, and Nzaramba are Black, and O’Callaghan is white—given my history of engagement with Brook’s work. I still feel wronged that the actors frequently mispronounced names and places, and they should be embarrassed by this. An actor worth his/her mettle should be able to character names such as “Dhritarashtra” and “Duryodhana,” let alone “easy” words such as “Ganga” and “Karna.” And Battlefield, like The Mahabharata, only displays the bare bones of the primary storyline without the layers of symbolism and subtext interwoven with subtlety and sophistication found in the text’s one hundred thousand stanzas.
However, this was, overall, a moving and satisfying theatre experience, especially in light of the day’s news. Battlefield alleges that the impact of war is eternal and that this unchangeable must be confronted. It asks the audience to face the horrors they have experienced—and perpetrated—and posits profound questions about death. Rwandan actor and activist Karemera shone in two memorable scenes—as Kunti and Ganga, both anguished by the deaths of their sons, Karna and Bhishma respectively. American McNeill sparkled less; his Yudhishthira was rather wooden. In set simplicity, costuming, music, and in acting, Battlefield was striking and minimalist, and Tsuchitori on djembe, is in full view. Although he did not participate in the action other than in accompaniment, he is a constant part of the unfolding events on stage, watching intently.
Battlefield runs until Saturday, November 21 and tickers are available via SISTIC (SG$48.00 to SG$108.00; SG$15.00 for SRT Youth). The production will then tour London, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Amiens, Rome, Modena, Florence, Washington D.C. and New York City. Take note, U.S.-based friends!