Posted by Laurence Green

Battlefield asks profound questions about life and death in a world riven with conflict. Based around the classic Mahabharata, it seems both contemporary and timeless, writes Laurence Green.

Ery Nzaramba in Battlefield

Legendary director Peter Brook is back with a 65-minute distillation of part of his 1985 11-hour epic The Mahabharata entitled Battlefield (Young Vic) in which, together with his co-collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne revisits the ancient Sanskrit myth of the Kurukshetra War. The production premiered at Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris on September 15 2015.

Set in the aftermath of the great battle, which, according to myth, lasted 18 days and left millions of bodies lying on the ground, the evening begins with a vivid description of the carnage. As one of the survivors says, "Victory is a defeat." The victor of the monumental slaughter, Yudhishthira, the new Pandava king, is left with the question of how to make sense of the senseless war.

As Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill) seeks out the old blind king Dritarashtra (Sean O'Callaghan), he also takes counsel from the queen Kunti (Carole Karemara) and various other sages (Ery Nzaramba). Having to live with this terrible massacre, having lost their sons, their families and their allies, will the new king and the old one find an inner peace? What makes this complicated, ancient family saga accessible, however, are the parables and stories told as these tormented kings search for the way and the light.

On a bare stage - save for a few bamboo poles and a cushion - beautifully lit by Philippe Vialatte, the sun-baked ochres and orange tints glow while the four strong cast are clad in black with red and orange scarves. All the actors move with a carefully controlled stillness of being confident and smooth and speak with a gently majestic rolling delivery, while the text of this verse play by Jean-Claude Carriere has the simple, limpid quality of an ancient parable or fable, and the story itself is punctuated with the hypnotic drumming of Toshi Tsuchitori.

This, in fact, is an immense canvas in miniature. However, it is also rather didactic and as a piece of drama manages to be fascinating and frustrating, poetic and pretentious. There are nevertheless memorable moments such as when a bunched cloth is transformed into a baby who floats Moses-like on the river (in this case the Ganges rather than the Nile), utters the most piercing cries you ever heard.

In all then, a play, which asks profound questions about life and death and in a world riven with conflict - the parallels with the seemingly never-ending war in Syria spring readily to mind -, seems both contemporary and timeless.


Runs at the Young Vic until Saturday 27 February 2016.

Box office: 020 7922 2922

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