This is a long due review as I was hoping I’d find the time to watch the original staging of the Mahabharata (a BFI dvd of the 1989 staging), and though I am more than willing to set aside an hour or two for the joys of moving picture, I just can’t seem to scrape together 5 hours (312 minutes to be exact) to enjoy the full length version. So, with my ignorance of its original form, I attempt to shape this review via deconstruction.
Armed with a little knowledge of the context of the Mahabharata from studies in Hinduism, I knew that as an epic, the story’s beats and development would be large scale – tragedy, emotion, action, all on a national scale. But the human stories are just as powerful – each chapter would have been familiar to the Indian audience, not unlike those that go to traditional Chinese opera. There would have been audience cheering and heckling for characters, and interaction with the story even though they know how it ends. The challenge, when Brook created it in a full epic 5-hour format (already stripping away the secondary stories), was to be able to translate the power of these stories to an audience who would not be familiar with either the characters or the folktale history, in such a way that would also not undermine or disrespect the original text. A challenge, indeed.
Criticisms of the time posed that it was “neocolonialist” but as a first step towards a new direction, of course it is an interpretation of sorts with a different artistic vision, rather than an authentic replica of Indian theatre tradition. It respects the cultural space but as all Brook productions do, casting is race-blind. Sometimes you can read too much into something (in this case, an interpretation of a cultural text could be seen as a type of cultural appropriation) and make it political when its intention never was.
But for what it was in 1985, it was generally hailed as “the theatrical event of the century”, and of course, at that time when the world was less globalised, less international, less exposed to other cultures, it appealed with universal themes; as Brook himself has said, it is “a work which only India could have created but which carries echoes for all mankind.”
So, for this revisit, “Battlefield” is only 70 minutes long… It is an epic in the minimalist Brookian form. Stripping it down to pure acting, the most efficient way of jumping into the story is presented in monologue form addressed directly to the audience. The importance of kin – family, friends, bloodline, is the key theme, and the message that no man is entirely good. The conflicts, fights, are not restricted to the battlefield, but also exist within the self, as “pride brought about this war.”
In a story exercise of personification, Death blames Time, and Time blames Destiny. The questions of blame, the effects of causality, and what is it to be “just” are posed. They all spring from this canvas. “The porter’s wheel is not the cause of making the pot”, and as all problems, conflicts and drama in life, it all stems from the action of people. In essence, we are all striving to understand our existence, to find harmony, to attain truth and peace within our hearts.
With the backdrop of a civil war, through the intimate scenes displaying relationships between characters, we are presented a number of folk tales, tales of metaphor and allusion, and the integration allows a change of pace. Visions of the dead returning to the river bring out the Indian/Hindu belief of reincarnation, and our relationship with nature.
Ending with the character’s statement “I shall tell you who I am”, we are presented with a drum solo – the answer in a language which transcends words and ends the show in a trance of thought. Yet it is, overall, an internal emotional – we are not raised to action but are left with feelings of reflection, of accepting what reality presents to us, and doing the best we can with it. The tragedy and complexities of human relationships between each other and within ourselves is left for contemplation.
If you are interested in the Mahabharata as a source, this is not the show for you. But if you want a human story that just so happens to be set in an Indian civil war, 70 minutes might just about be enough.