Director Peter Brook’s Battlefield is filled with all the magic, strangeness, bad thinking, revelatory moments, and daring you might expect from a 92-year old theatrical rebel and avant-garde showman who has seen the world change over and over again. Adapted from Jean-Claude Carriere’s retelling of the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the show is full of brilliance and a few false steps, and that’s what makes it a joyful, fascinating piece of theater.
We begin in the aftermath of battle, and rival leaders of a civil war of impossible scope -- the victorious Yudishtira (Jared McNeil) and his uncle, the conquered Dritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan) -- survey the destruction before them: “Seven hundred million and two hundred and sixty-seven soldiers have died," Dritarashtra says, as if precision were a balm for disaster.
The power of these scenes of realization and regret isn’t so much the ridiculous level of tragedy before these men, but rather their affectless demeanor. Neither seems capable of enacting the emotions that they so obviously feel. The world they knew before the war is gone, and with it the individuals they once were.
Faced with the carnage of his own making, Yudishtira wants nothing more than to escape and reject the identity of king he so viciously fought for. And so from that moment on, we follow his journey in an attempt to understand not who he is, but what he may become.
Here is a man who was violently tied to the world and the self, and we now have the privilege of watching him become something else, a different kind of consciousness. It’s a strange and unsettling experience and a feat of daring that Brook and his co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne don’t quite maintain through the rich but uneven 70 minutes.
This is the rare theater work that is at its best when it fails to directly engage the audience, and one of the central pleasures of Battlefield is how casually the astounding cast plays these opening scenes. The narrative bristles with an excess of melodrama that Brook and Estienne keep at a distance -- the carnage of war, a brother found and lost, a mother with secrets, a villain of stunning kindness, and Gods with no answers but to accept what fate brings. We can contemplate what has happened to these people, but we cannot pretend to feel as they do.