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.

This characteristic scene is a tangible stage-picture – a disguised storyteller in a safe court – of the multiplicity of worlds: a tremor of terror can cross our minds even as we enjoy a show of comfort and pleasure. Throughout Brook’s mise-en-scène, emblems and images conjured up in the quarry give a flickering apprehension of reality. The stage lighting of Jean Kalman shrinks, shifts and expands the space; the cracked rockface and standing sheets of water are illuminated by a galaxy of candles and torches, until they tremble insubstantially in your mind’s eye. Chloe Obolensky’s costumes – rich silks, expansive embroidered dresses, vivid Kathakali colours and dried-out sacking, cuirasses and boots suggesting feudal Tudors and Japanese samurais, saffron and white robes against glittering sand – open out the harmonics of the story and the national variety of the actors, while Brook makes her bamboo screens, bows and arrows and chariot-wheels into both literal story elements and symbolic emblems of the mastery of life or the imminence of death. Rivulets of flame snake across the arena as Arjuna climbs the Himalayas to meet the god Shiva and gain knowledge of the decisive ‘divine weapon’. This kind of theatre almost transcends the stubborn materiality of bodies and things on a stage.

Brook has succeeded in drawing from his company – who are truly a company, in that they have committed to stay with The Mahabharata through all its peregrinations until 1987 – a series of performances which, while respecting the ethnic particularities of each actor, focus a penetrating light on the characters of The Mahabharata. Vittorio Mezzogiorno brings to Arjuna a fine-drawn attentiveness, a gentle virility which recalls the delicate strength of figures in Raphael; Mireille Maalouf, binding her eyes to share her blind husband’s disability and transfixed by every fresh disclosure of the war, gives Gandhari a dignity and tragic acceptance which owe much to bitter experience of the war in her native Lebanon; Mattias Habich as Yudishthira is a flaxen-haired Dürer knight searching for the true path; Maurice Benichou, who is French but of a North African Jewish family, has Mediterranean ease and a childlike gravity as Krishna; Alain Maratrat as Vyasa the poet has the Ancient Mariner authority of a Breton or Welsh bard; the British actor Bruce Myers as Karna, the blighted orphan warrior, is a troubled, Dickensian lost child in a man’s body; the angular Sotgui Kouyate as the saintly self-denying Bhishma has the sad grace of an elongated sculpture from Nigeria or New Guinea, and something of the tragedy of a calcinated Giacometti figure.

Just as we have recently learned to see ‘Modernist Primitivism’ in painting and sculpture as a complex incorporation of tribal languages from Africa and Asia, so we might see Brook’s Mahabharata as the theatre’s first assimilation of the performance culture of Asia and the East not simply as entertainment exoticism or a source of styles and techniques for European ideas, but as an equal embodiment in a cross-cultural actors’ group telling a far-reaching tale.

One thread guides you through The Mahabharata’s luxuriant forest: the entire journey aims at one destination, the making of a good king. Like Shakespeare’s history-play cycle, this story centres on a man passing through trials and tribulations in order to become a better monarch, of his kingdom and of himself. The personal development of Yudishthira, from weak goodness to a strength greater for having been wrecked and remade, is like the journey of many apprentice rulers in Shakespeare – Henry IV, Prince Hal becoming Henry V, Richard II in his fruitful desolation. But here the personal is inseparable from the public, and from the cosmic: in The Mahabharata, the Great Chain of Being has the limitless reverberations which Shakespeare fully attained only in his later tragedies and romances. And if The Mahabharata is about the many-faceted making of a king, then Peter Brook’s journey to The Mahabharata – which began more than ten years ago and is studded with apparent digressions and indirections – is about the forging of a theatre-maker, and the redefinition of what theatre is. And just as The Mahabharata is presided over by gods and superhuman presences – Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu/Krishna – so Brook has been led by mentors – Shakespeare, Jerzy Grotowski, Antonin Artaud.

The Shakespearean resonances are immediately evident, and get deeper as the story proceeds, culminating in Lear-like echoes of blind deposed monarchs seeing through the veil of illusory reality into the mystery of things. The uncompromising search for wholeness and the use of Oriental religious and theatrical disciplines, which the Polish theatre pioneer Grotowski taught Brook, are acknowledged in the poise and intensity of the entire Mahabharata cast, and underlined by the tormented presence of Ryzard Cieslak as the blind king. Grotowski’s irruption into Brook’s life and work in the Sixties sharpened his spiritual search and gave him working practices and disciplines. But perhaps the most telling of the ancestors of this Mahabharata is Antonin Artaud. It was his work and example, his fretting at limits, that was the pivot twenty years ago for Brook’s transformation from a brilliant theatre-director into a seeker. In the mid-Sixties, prompted by Artaud’s hunt for theatre that should be as keen as hunger, for actors who would signal fiercely through the flames of a social and metaphysical conflagration, he turned away from the theatre of display and dazzle, from his effervescent productions of Love’s Labours Lost, Ring round the Moon and Irma la Douce, and set off into a territory darker and wilder, although one prefigured in his work by the blatant horrors of Titus Andronicus and the implacable justice-machine of Measure for Measure. Artaud is a presiding deity (or demon) of The Mahabharata because Brook has, in one sense, retraced his path to that seminal encounter in 1933 when Artaud saw the Balinese dance-troupe at the Paris world fair: ‘The actors with their costumes constitute veritable living, moving hieroglyphs,’ he wrote, ‘brocaded with a certain number of gestures – mysterious signs which correspond to some unknown, fabulous and obscure reality which we here in the Occident have completely repressed.’

How appropriate it is that, fifty years later in Provence, Yoshi Oida, a trim, hieroglyphic Japanese actor, should shape clear-cut gestures through the night air, giving pitiless archery instruction as the warrior Drona to his disciples – archery here is not just a military attainment but one of the soul’s skills. For, whatever France’s political racism (and this play happens an hour’s drive from Marseilles, where Le Pen’s National Front seized power this year by tapping prejudice against North African travailleurs immigrés), French culture has rarely been confined by xenophobia. Artaud is one of many French artists – Paul Claudel, Victor Segalen, Henri Michaux, René Daumal – who have opened themselves to and been transformed by India and Asia. And the anthropological riches of the Musée de I’Homme and Musée Guimet have nourished modern artists as nowhere else. All colonisation may be barbaric, but some ends of empire are more civilised than others.

As you watch Yoshi Oida barking and grunting at his archery disciples with wonderful contained authority, you are reminded not only of a Zen master test but also of a Keystone Cops routine. One of Brook’s continuing qualities has been to yoke the spiritual insights which Artaud and Grotowski sought in pathos or terror to a cheerful, childlike playfulness. He comes from a Shakespearean theatre of holy fools, utterly serious clowns. This duality of tone, light and weighty, deft and deep, characterises everything in The Mahabharata. It is as if something so important were at stake that only the total concentration a child gives to a game could come to grips with it.

‘It’s the age of Kali, the dark-time, the fields turned to desert, crime stalks the city, blood-eating animals sleep in the main streets, drought, famine, the sky swallows up all the water, dead hot earth, then fire swells, swept by the wind, fire pierces the earth, destroys the underworld, wind and fire turn the world to a crust, huge clouds appear, blue, yellow, red, clouds like sea-monsters, like shattered cities, with garlands of lightning, water falls, water pours down and drowns the earth, twelve years of storms, mountains tear the water, I can’t see the world anymore, and then, when nothing is left but a grey sea without man, without beast, without tree, the first god, the creator drinks up the terrible wind and falls asleep.’ As Yudishthira speaks these words (part of a tale begun as entertainment and which has turned apocalyptic) the silence is almost unbearable. A vision of destruction imagined two thousand years ago dredges up our worst nightmares now.

Not that The Mahabharata tries to plug into our fears of nuclear destruction, of man-made dismemberment of the universal fabric: as a work whose vision is multiple, layered and protean, it naturally extends its story of fratricidal war onto every possible plane. Those intimations of an offence against the architecture of things which sound so movingly through the Shakespearean chronicle-plays – those descriptions of deformity in the bud, miscarriage and mutation in birthbed and manger, the very order of nature mockingly inverted – seem after-echoes of The Mahabharata’s catastrophe let loose.

When, on the third evening of this Mahabharata, the war between Pandaras and the Kauravas breaks out and runs its bitter course, it does so on every level. The physical: tournament skills of swirling swords and clubs, straining bows and whizzing arrows, panoply of martial arts, dervish warriors leaping, wheel formations slowly turning in a choreography of carnage, all the combat display we thrill to in tattoos or sci-fi blitzes in outer space. The magical-mystical: Krishna’s devastating war-disc, and the unbeatable divine weapon Shiva bestows or whose secret mantra some strange hermit whispers in your ear. And the cosmic: war of the worlds, ultimate firestorm, everything consumed, as dharma pursues its path, as destiny demands.

As Brook sets his amphitheatre ablaze with torches and flares – geysers of flame splintered in pools of water strewn with bodies, stage lighting extinguished; as you sit in a rocky quarry gripped by the fear men have felt on nighttime battlefields since time began, you are also suddenly aware that our contemporary traumas – Beirut, Iraqis and Iranians in desert sand, fireballs of napalm and napalm’s nuclear big brother – stammer on the threshold of horror like a stuck needle. We can only envisage the end of things, again and again. The poet of The Mahabharata, believing that we come to see as illusion what we have spent our lives calling reality, looks through that end to new beginnings. That is the gulf between our fears and their beliefs.

Our European incredulity at the ruses of the god Krishna in the battle is a measure of this gulf. However much we know about the miracles of the Old Testament God, or the interventions of the Greek pantheon, we are still alarmed that a god stoops to such ‘dirty tricks’ as eclipsing the sun so that Arjuna, a marksman in the dark, can transfix his enemy with a fatal arrow. Our stubborn rigidities stumble against this childlike god, whom we often encounter horizontal and asleep, as if dreaming our world and all its (to us) consuming concerns and principles. We rebel against such apparent wiliness, we expect a ‘reliable’ code of behaviour. What we get instead is a deeper coherence, one that goes beyond conventional moral precept and takes on board more destruction and disaster than we are prepared to accept.

On the eve of battle, ringed by a circle of hard-breathing soldiers weaponed to the hilt, Krishna deepens his lesson. The Bhagavad-Gita, separated from its story, has become the moral distillation of The Mahabharata for the West, its acceptable digest version. Reintegrated here into the plot of an immense saga, with dogs of war straining at the leash, Krishna’s message to Arjuna, appalled at the massacre he will perpetrate, becomes an urgent parable, not a set of precepts.

ARJUNA: All men are born into illusion. How do you reach an absolute, if you’re born into an illusion?

KRISHNA: Slowly, Krishna led Arjuna into all the regions of the spirit. He showed him the deep movements of his being and his true battle-field, where neither arrows nor warriors are needed, where you fight alone.

ARJUNA: Tell me who you are. I am shaken to my depths, and I’m afraid.

KRISHNA: Matter is changeable, but I am all that you say, all that you think. Everything rests upon me, like pearls on a thread. I am the sweet smell of the earth and I am the heat of fire, I am appearance and disappearance, I am the trickery of tricksters, I am the gleam of whatever shines. All creatures fall into the night, and all are restored to the day. I have already defeated all these warriors; he who thinks he can kill, and he who thinks he can be killed are equally mistaken. Weapons cannot pierce this life that animates you, nor fire burn it, nor water dampen it, nor wind dry it out. Have no fear, and stand up, for I love you.

Then the two armies tear each other limb from limb. War as metaphor, war as brutal reality. Brook says his engagement with The Mahabharata began in 1966, when a young Indian came into the rehearsal room for US, Brook’s show about the war in Vietnam, and recounted to the company this scene of the Bhagavad-Gita. US was threaded through with self-immolating Buddhist monks and their Arjuna-like Western emulators.

‘We’ve always thought of a theatre group as a storyteller with multiple faces,’ writes Brook in his preliminary notes to The Mahabharata, and the flourish of interlocking stories with which his first evening opens is an exhilarating signal of the freedom of narration to come. The beginning of the play is also the origin of written literature, as the poet Vyasa seeks a scribe for his immense epic poem about the Bharata (Hindus, but also humankind) which he wants to pass on to a child. Elephant-headed Ganesha, ‘he who calms quarrels’, appears and obliges. The bard, the child and the man-animal make up a storytelling band, protean, questioning and quizzical. Within minutes, starting with the ancestry of Ganesha and Vyasa, we have been drawn into a skein of stories involving Shiva, sperm, the goddess of the Ganges, fish and fisher-kings, sexual renunciation, gazelles, interdictions on pain of sudden death, multiple couplings (including sleeping with the sun), a blind child and his pale-skinned brother, a mother pregnant for two years who gives birth to a football of flesh which, cut into a hundred pieces and soaked in a hundred jars, becomes the hundred sons of one of the tribes of the story.

The narrator himself is hauled into the story to couple with three princesses and supply his tale with new characters. This baroquely comic scene (the women comply, but with some disgust, for Vyasa is rough and uncomely) yokes sexual and literary conception in a way that would delight today’s literary theorists, while reminding mere readers that – as Calvino has noted – the pleasure of deciphering a story is analogous to that of exploring a lover’s body. Anyone who has ever fallen under the narrative spell of Borges, Mar quez, Calvino or Grass, will recognise these superimposed criss-crossing stories of a three-thousand-year-old epic. Brook’s search into the sagas and parables of Africa and the East, his expeditions into their village cultures in search of bards and storytellers, his staging of The Conference of the Birds, The Ik and the African farce The Bone and his film about Gurdjieff (each a stepping-stone to The Mahabharata) have been prompted by his dissatisfaction with the ideological, moralising or psychological plays which inhabit most Western stages today. ‘I am looking for something more volcanic,’ he said, some years back.

Offstage, Death’s voice asks: ‘What is the greatest marvel?’ Yudishthira replies: ‘Each day death strikes around us and we live as if we were immortal beings.’ A weightless black girl ecstatically arches herself as a gazelle, like some figure from an erotic temple-frieze. A wheel whipped along by an actor to signify a chariot later becomes the wheel of life on which its rider dies. Sounds echo around the natural amphitheatre – blare of horn and trombone, wail of reeds, reverberations of sitar – as transparent cloths are stretched up to shield us from manifestations of divine glory. Scenes reminiscent of Jacobean horror, of Chekhovian tenderness, above all, of those Shakespeare parables in which the cloud-capped towers dissolve and a life becomes a scene in a play, to be replaced by another but not lost. All these recapitulations of a progress in and through the theatre are there in Brook’s Mahabharata.

At 60, Brook has reached nothing so comfortable as a resting-place. For the past 15 years, since he set up in Paris with his international theatre research group, and began to scour the world in search of clues and traces, he has been a paradoxical presence: an institution, yet constitutionally fluid; fixed and nomadic; rooted and transitory. He has taken the enduring ephemerality of theatre to its limits. Now his current company will travel the world (including India) with The Mahabharata, trying and testing its reverberations each night afresh.

Of all the theatre groups which have sustained a fruitful continuity within the past twenty years, Brook’s is the most ample and open. Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre floundered in the counter-cultural pieties of Paradise Now. Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil shows signs of an etiolated aestheticism in its recent Orientalised Shakespeare – there is absolutely no Indiennerie in Brook’s Mahabharata. Peter Stein has abdicated from the Schaubühne, Berlin’s highly subsidised Marxist theatrical collective. And Bill Bryden’s Cottesloe company, having perfected a sophisticated people’s theatre in its staging of Medieval Mystery plays, looks set to follow Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop into commercial theatre acclaim and subsequent dispersal.

By setting his sights on a truly grand goal – the exploration of what theatre can do that communicates globally, across cultural boundaries – and by pursuing this goal with tenacity and selflessness, Brook has reached what he would call some provisional certainties. The Mahabharata, with its sprouting perspectives and liquid structures, is a vessel which might have been destined for his passionate detachment and for the theatre’s intrinsic ‘lies like truth’. In Brook’s gran teatro del mundo, the play’s the thing, and playing is the root of all.

SHAKUNI: For the deep player, he who knows the game and weighs things up calmly, cheating is no problem. There’s no crime here but simply the game, the entire game. A wise man debates with fools: do you call that cheating? A seasoned warrior fights beginners: do you call that cheating? Knowing how things are isn’t cheating. You always go in with a will to win. That’s how life is. Withdraw from the game if you’re afraid.