Friday, November 20, 2015

The Final Scene from the Mahabharata

Peter Brook's 'Battlefield' takes its name from the final scene of 'The Mahabharata'. This play opened at the 90-year-old playwright's beloved Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and has arrived in Singapore as its first stop before heading to Tokyo, then to Europe, India, Hong Kong, etc. It's co-directed by Marie-Hélène Estienne and writer Jean-Claude Carrier(Reviews here, hereherehere and here.)

As a teenager, with none of the critical thinking of an adult, I grimly watched Peter Brook's 1985 super long nine-hour (three plays/each three hours) 'The Mahabharata' in its condensed six-hour film version over three days. Since it wasn't a text for the exams, I refused to read this play in its printed paper version. Reading it in its translated long poem as a textbook was sufficient. :p It has been criticized as a Eurocentric appropriation of non-Western culture. Like it stays within a Western dramatic paradigm. It's a very fine line between ahh...orientalism and how every play in the non-Western world could be brought to life on stage as a sort of Shakespearean play, for the lack of a better analogy.

Dunno about the audience reception in Singapore, but it doesn't seem wildly popular on the theatre-goer's calendar. Bought tickets a day before and I still managed to get front row seats for eight persons. 'Battlefield' is co-produced by London's Young VicLes Théâtres de la ville de LuxembourgPARCO Co. Ltd / TokyoGrotowski InstituteSingapore Repertory TheatreThéâtre de Liège and C.I.R.T. (Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale), and Attiki Cultural Society. Gosh that's a mouthful.

From Google Images. A scene of whether to kill a snake.
Presumably of Parikshit's death and Astika Muni's prevention of the snake's killing. Destiny. 

30 years since Peter Brook's 'The Mahabharata' was staged, the 'Battlefield' looked at the 18-day Kurukshetra War where only 12 warriors survived and Yudhishthira was crowned king of Hastinapur. It's rewarding if you have seen the film or better yet, the original play, read the text, then see this play flagging the last battle in its 21st century interpretation. We live in Asia, and Singapore residents would have grown up with or come across the stories of 'The Mahabharata' either in song, dance or as told by shadow puppets. We should know that the Krishna's discussion with Arjuna on the battlefield is recorded as the 'Bhagavad Gita' is subsumed within 'The Mahabharata'. Right? We ought to have read this epic poem the same way we would have read or at least flipped through a few stanzas of...Homer's 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey', Firdawsi's 'Shahnameh' or erm...'Beowulf'.

(I do not like Capitol Theatre one bit. The air-conditioning was weak and there was insufficient ventilation. It was friggin uncomfortable. The acoustics were terrible. The actors projected their voices and yet the stage and ceilings swallowed them up. In fact, I would avoid watching shows staged at this event in future.)

I've to be honest. I don't quite fancy the presentation and narrative of the play. I went in with high expectations and came out disappointed on that score. While Peter Brook's 70-minute 'Battlefield' has simplified the Hindu epic, as well as minimized the appearances of the various characters involved, it didn't lose the nuances of the themes and messages. The minimalist set and backdrop were refreshing. I liked that. The actors were good.

Sure, it's not about the battle. It's about the reflections, weighing costs and the emotions that followed after, and to do what must be done in the relentless cycle of life, and to a large extent, what destiny had in store. The play drew out the process of these thoughts. BUT I simply didn't welcome how it has been placed on stage, and how the actors have been constrained in the numbing aftermath of an epic battle. The part of the Mongoose with supposed audience interaction was simply strange.

Granted, in the manner of staging theatre plays in a digestible format for the audience, this is unavoidable. It's impossible to bring out all the layers and symbolism in any dramatization. Peter Brook shifted the context of it to presumably reach out to different audiences. In this twenty-first century, this staging is relevant. The Mongoose tells us it's not the amount of wealth that matters. It has been told through the centuries. Clearly, history and literature have taught us nothing in the matters of ideological and religious conflict, of diminishing peace, and of a world torn asunder. 

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