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Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

From his home base in Paris, Brook discusses bringing back The Mahabharata to BAM in the form of Battlefield.

Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata
Photo: Colm Hogan

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].

You brought life back to the abandoned Majestic just as you did with the Bouffes du Nord, the defunct music hall that you turned into your theater home in Paris. Is this something that particularly excites you?

Yes. The most important thing is that before the transformation of the Majestic was our working relationship with Harvey. We had been friends for a long time, before A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Broadway [in 1971]. Harvey, then, very boldly said that he wanted to transfer the Dream from Broadway to Brooklyn. We thought that if we use the Howard Gilman Opera House in a new way we can reverse the time-old structure where the most expensive seats are in the front rows and the people who’re most enthusiastic, the young people with less money, are up in the gallery. So we actually put one-dollar seats on the stage. The plushy audience who could pay, they were in what’s called the dress circle. The whole of the living part of the audience was in the stalls, the cheapest seats. And that was the idealism inseparable from the completely practical sense of Harvey. He really must be celebrated as we talk.

Can you speak to Toshi Tsuchitori’s musical contribution to Battlefield? He was also part of the team on the original production of The Mahabharata.

With great pleasure. Toshi has been there through so many of our adventures. Just this afternoon I have been looking through some old, old records of some of the plays we did; you hear the music that Toshi is making, the degree of his skills and his understanding of musical styles. And yet he’s also a jazzman. He’s not stuck in any one style. He has a sense of what the actor is going through in the performance. He’s a living part of it. That’s why here, in Battlefield, he’s closer, physically on the stage, so he’s really part of this tiny group. This is the same thing again, as we don’t say we’re trying to be simple or that we’re trying to be minimalist, but just the other way round: In something very, very concentrated you can find an incredible richness. In the past, Toshi has often used a whole battery of bells and percussion instruments. Here he found that just himself and his African drum can cover everything—all the different moods. He’s really an essential part of our work, perhaps the living exponent of how simplicity and richness are inseparable.

Coinciding with the run of Battlefield, the BAMcinématek is screening Peter Brook: Behind the Camera, a retrospective of some of your rarely seen films. How do you feel about filmmaking?

It’s my second love. If you look at Lord of the Flies, it contains every one of the deep meanings of The Mahabharata: the essence of conflict. If you look at terrorism, you see how often the parents say, “We did everything for our child, gave him a good education, we can’t imagine why he went off to be a terrorist in Syria.” And here, we see William Golding with incredible intuition writing this novel about upper-middle-class kids, from the best schools; they crash on this desert island and life begins again. Like in the beginning of The Mahabharata, they reconstruct their world from nothing. Once they disagree, the disagreement is the essence of everything from there till today.

If you remember, in Lord of the Flies, the whole of the story is played by kids and two of the children get murdered by the other kids. And in the last scene they set fire to the island. At the very end of the film, you see a close-up of this boy Ralph with tears rolling down his cheeks, because behind him you see this semi-paradise, this desert island, where everything in it you can see is burning. It brings us to today with all of our burning buildings. Of course, we never thought of it that way, we just tried to bring the story to life with a group of kids, with very little money—which is why we were so free not have any Hollywood producer breathing down our necks. That’s why I was very happy with the idea that this sequence of films starting with that, through Tell Me Lies, which is my film about the Vietnam War—and you see this thread that leads on to The Mahabharata, and on to Battlefield. Because what matters to me is for everything to be in the present. One doesn’t look back with nostalgia. The past comes to life again in the present.

Do you find it at all depressing that human behavior hasn’t changed very much over the decades?

No, that would be very pretentious. That’s why an ancient text like The Mahabharata is useful, because it makes us very modest. One of the most stupid questions, I’m afraid, that I’ve been asked was, “Do you think your show can change the world?” Imagine that we should be so crazy as to think with a little act of doing theater we can make such a change. No, where we can have a very strong influence is that there are 300 to 500 people who are there together with us for one hour, two hours, three hours, and gradually, through everyone working together, thanks to the scenes and the material, which is why this great material is essential, through that, something comes to life where the horrors are more horrible, but also the fact that for human beings there’s always hope and courage. And you don’t give up.

That’s why I’m so happy at the end when people, instead of just going home, carry something with them—for a moment. One sees that sometimes in the way that people get up and, in silence very quietly go toward the door. By the time they’re out on the street, that something has vanished, but not completely. It’s not for us to say where that seed will land, what that will do. We can only say that in our tiny, mini world of the theater that something in today’s world can still be positive, that’s all.

Are you working on any new projects?

Yes. But I never, never talk about them too soon, because in that way I think I will talk them out of my system, or spoil it. So for the moment, I’ll just say yes.

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