It's no exaggeration to claim that Peter Brook is one of the most influential theater directors of the latter half of the last century. The English-born theater maker, and established filmmaker in his own right, is internationally hailed, revered even by some, as a kind of guru whose work is a constant search for the essence of theater. His 1968 book The Empty Space is a seminal work of theater analysis, and his productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and 1970s (Marat/Sade, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night's Dream) are celebrated for their groundbreaking innovation.
Since then, he's developed and staged a series of adventurous productions around the globe. In New York City, Brook's experimental staging of The Tragedy of Carmen re-lit and revitalized Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1983, and in 1987, his elemental nine-hour production The Mahabharata, based on the ancient multi-volume Sanskrit epic from India, restored life to a long-defunct movie theater in Brooklyn.
That venue, now the BAM Harvey Theater, has been an integral part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's arts programming ever since. It's to this same stage that the 91-year-old director brings his latest, Battlefield, a small-scale production featuring four actors and a drummer, which is also based on the classic Indian text that inspired him three decades ago. When I reached Brook by phone earlier this month, he spoke from his office at the Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, his home base in Paris since the mid-'70s.
Did you have a specific reason for revisiting The Mahabharata for this production of Battlefield?
We never thought of going back to The Mahabharata. What makes the force of Battlefield is that The Mahabharata raised its head as being so “for today” that there was no question [of what we should do]. I should say that, in over 50 years with all our projects, it was hardly ever about what we were going to do next. We’re always surrounded by people who say the eternal “Why don’t you?” or “Please read this,” but it’s more like a forest that you have to go through, and then suddenly something presents itself. The Mahabharata made itself felt to [co-adapter and co-director] Marie-Hélène Estienne, [playwright] Jean-Claude Carrière, and to myself like an answer to all these queries about the present day. One of the lines which was there with us at the very start is when King Yudishtira, this leader who’s won this enormous battle, tearing a family apart, massacring hundreds and hundreds of people on this vast battlefield, puts the question: What, now, is the responsibility?
It’s the question we wish all our soldiers, generals, and leaders would ask, and realize that a victory can also be a defeat. When you sit back with military parades where you’re flattered and complimented by everyone, you have to remember why you fought the war—the war of wars to try to make a better world. So now we’re here: Yudishtira, the man who’s won—and everything in his life as a human is just riddled with remorse and guilt. Just like Oppenheimer. We know that the man who developed the atom bomb lived a tortured life because his discovery won the war, but fell with such horror on Hiroshima. And this same Hiroshima question is there today in so many parts of the world—in Syria, where, just as we’re speaking, the Russians and Americans are getting together to discuss a truce. We know that there’s no real truth and sincerity and deep self-questioning here, as it’s all a matter of public relations. In The Mahabharata, the question of real responsibility is on both sides. It also lies with the old blind king who’s on the other side and who also asks if he did everything to avoid this becoming a bloody war.
Thirty years ago you presented The Mahabharata as a nine-hour epic. Battlefield runs just a little over an hour. Have you consciously tried to make your work more distilled over the recent decades?
There isn’t a system. From the very start, when I started with great enthusiasm in London, I plunged into every possible thing the theater could offer—music, revolving stages, Technicolor effects, everything you can think of—to make it as vivid and exciting as possible. Then, gradually and slowly, I began to see that this was all very well, but there was something stronger if I got rid of some of the effects. If you follow what I’ve done in opera, with The Tragedy of Carmen, we actually felt that if you took away the big scenery, took away the big showy singing, the big orchestra, and Marius Constant, a marvelous musician, reduced it to a tiny orchestra, in that way, the beauty of the music was imbued and we listened more purely to the opera itself. And we found how much this goes for everything else as well. Gradually, one sees that there are a whole lot of trappings and complications. I’m sure you find this when you write. If today you give me a transcript of what I’m saying to you, I would cut out immediately three quarters of it. That’s the process.
So the style is revealed by the piece itself?
The subject, the relationship between the human beings, what it comes from, what it leads to—all of that you feel. In Battlefield, it’s all these issues that we have just spoken about—as we rehearse they’re so close to us. And we don’t stop, we work on it continually. If we’re static and we say this is the form and we now go and do it like one does with a musical, playing the same shape infinitely, it won’t make any immediate impression. It will virtually get stale.
As you tour Battlefield, does the production change depending on the country and venue?
Oh, it’s very interesting. We try to develop it for each new place. I’m now at an age where I have to watch a bit the degree of travelling I do, so my close, eternal collaborator, Marie-Hélène, she’s always there, close to the actors, watching them. Mainly, you must leave them alone, but she’s always there to help to intervene with each new space, trying to find an intimacy on an enormous stage. They’ve played this in very big spaces. We had that experience in Madrid and then we went to a place in Italy where the stage was minute, and there you have to keep the epic elements and the timing. So there are all these adjustments that you have to make.
We must keep in mind, as we talk about it now, about this intimate relationship between The Mahabharata, Harvey Lichtenstein, and BAM. Formerly the Majestic Theater, the BAM Harvey Theater was transformed by Harvey to be able to stage the original production of The Mahabharata, because otherwise we couldn’t have come to New York. It was Harvey who suddenly discovered that as he walked past this completely abandoned movie house. He called me up and said that I should come and look at it immediately, and that we could turn it into something that corresponds to the needs [of the production]. And that’s how it became a real partner to our Bouffes du Nord theater [in Paris].