Michael Kustow praises Peter Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’

An egg-shaped space, one half-shell a bank of raked seating, the other a high wall of splintered striated rock, roofed by the sky and stars that Van Gogh saw haloed from Arles. You look down into a bowl of sand dented by a strip of water and a shallow pool. On a boulder behind you a robed musician raises a twisted horn and sounds an earthy fanfare, like an elephant cry. At nightfall in this quarry a few kilometres outside Avignon, Peter Brook’s staging of Jean-Claude Carrière’s adaptation of The Mahabharata begins.

Wisdom-book and story-repository, fifteen times the size of the Bible, The Mahabharata was written in Sanskrit, but the words you hear are French, spoken with a piquant diversity of accents matching each actor’s distinctive shape, skin and race. A diminutive North African Jew as elephant-headed Ganesha, then as Krishna. Vyasa, the bard of the poem, a ginger-haired Gascon. Tiny, tightbound Japanese, long-limbed loping Senegalese, pale-skinned Germans and Poles, a wide-lipped Lebanese, a princess with streaming black hair and etched eyes – the one Indian in this constellation of colours and silhouettes. A multicultural congregation of actors plays out an ancient accumulation of fantastic fables, wisdom parables and fierce physical confrontations over three nights in an arena of rock, sand, water and fire. You think: this is theatre and not-theatre, a play and an encounter that is more than a play, as the stories start to unspool, recounted by the poet-author who is also a figure in his own tapestry of tales.

Peter Brook’s Mahabharata is not just the reinsertion into the European mind of a saga like the Iliad, a compendium of the marvellous like The Arabian Nights, a collage of earthly action and transcendental insight like the Bible – and a bumper storybook as gripping as Star Wars or the comic-strips through which the adventures of Arjuna and Krishna are purveyed to millions of Indian children today. It is also the culmination of Peter Brook’s 15-year-old Centre International de Créations Théâtrales. Brook and Carrière have adapted The Mahabharata into three plays: The Game of Dice, The Exile in the Forest and The War. The titles describe the key scenes and actions in the combat between two related clans which forms the heart of The Mahabharata: the dice-game in which Yudishthira gambles away his kingdom, his family and himself; the wounding and healing exile in which he, his four brothers and their shared wife learn from loss; and the culminating battle in which multitudes die and yet the world and its inhabitants are restored to a better order, a truer dharma.

But The Mahabharata is much more than linear narrative. Brook and his company continually come up with kaleidoscopic theatrical actions which embody what is perhaps the deepest attitude of The Mahabharata, and of Brook’s idea of theatre: that reality is deliquescent, so that there is no single way, political, psychological or moral, to seize it; that we live in a superimposed plurality of worlds and that the truest wisdom – which live theatre is uniquely placed to explore – is never to lose touch with alternative and contradictory universes, while devoting yourself completely to the demands of the world you inhabit.

It is the multi-dimensional, almost sculptural quality in this theatrical event that puts flesh on this philosophy. By framing the action (as the original poem does) with an author who is also a character, Brook and Carrière can constantly vary the conventions of le récit: digressing, backtracking, inserting, speeding up to summarise twenty years in a sentence, slowing down to capture each charged second of the encounter between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna on the eve of battle, weaving sub-stories and perspective-shifts into the main flow just as natural and emblematic decoration twines its way into Indian illustration and sculpture, where a god’s nose and forehead can be studded with an infinity of tiny figures. This Mahabharata is a masterly instance of the surreal plasticity of storytelling, in a theatrical form modelled on the village square.

One scene must stand as an example. Carpets are unrolled and cushions piled high on the stone and sand of the quarry to create a luxurious court. A king and his entourage loll back, enjoying a witty puppet-show produced from behind a multi-coloured cloth. The puppet seems to run amok, stealing kisses from the ladies. It’s all very relaxed, recalling the convivial atmosphere of the court entertainment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Brook’s climactic Shakespeare production in 1970, before he moved to Paris. The exiled King Yudishthira and his family appear at court, disguised as beggars, servants and eunuchs. They are ordered to tell a story. They begin the tale of Hanuman, the monkey-god, and how he prevented Bhima from following the path to Heaven by barring the way with his thick, heavy tail. The disguised Bhima does a clown-show miming the difficulty of the obstacle. Three speeches later, Yudishthira is spellbinding the audience on stage and in the quarry with a fierce description of our dark era of destruction, a foretaste of cataclysmic conflicts and a fable which assumes that the world is already destroyed.

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