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.
The Mahabharata’s odd sense of chronology and the directors' handling of it also contributes in a unsettling way to our sense of estrangement. Huge jumps in time simply happen: “Fifteen years had passed when one day Yudishtira discovered that his uncle was fasting and sleeping on the ground.” It's a pedestrian line off-handedly delivered by Ery Nzaramba as the shapeshifting narrator, yet the effect is mind-altering. And the actors make it more so by doing nothing to signal that they’ve aged decades in a moment -- they’re playing to the soul rather than the outward body.
You feel these temporal shifts with a shock of recognition; large chunks of our lives just don’t matter and we are left essentially unchanged. All of Yudishtira’s fine peacetime leadership slips by in a sentence or two. It is only events that undo the fabric of the everyday that are worth noting.
Where the production loses momentum is when it turns conventionally dramatic, especially in a series of cute and cloying scenes where the cast acts out a series of parables related by Youdishtira's dying grandfather, Bishma, to his grandson. In a piece that attempts to shear away excess -- the set is a rectangle of endless black -- this interlude upsets the radical sense of detachment that courses through most of the evening.
Yet Brook and Estienne manage to change the nature of the dramatic in Battlefield. We don’t feel the build up to action and its cathartic release; instead, something happens and we are suddenly confronted with a new world, and, even more shockingly, new selves.
'Battlefield' runs through Sunday, May 25 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.