Legends Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière Adapt Indian Epic

Peter Brook directed the 1960s stage and screen versions of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, which is arguably the 20th century’s best post-Brecht political play. Marat/Sade left an indelible impression on me - I can still remember some of the drama’s searing dialogue and its depiction of French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat as the totally devoted “friend of the people” remains very moving. Around the same time I saw Marat/ Sade I also viewed and was greatly influenced by Spanish surrealist director Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, written by his frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière. (The fact that this recipient of 2014’s Lifetime Achievement Academy Award does not receive a blurb in Battlefield’s program is a woefully grievous omission.)


So I went to see Battlefield - co-helmed and adapted by 92-year-old Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, written by the playbill-slighted Carrière - with great expectations worthy of a Pip, anticipating a pip of a production. Battlefield is derived from an ancient Indian Sanskrit poem called The Mahabharata, which Brook and Carrière co-rendered as a nine hour long play that premiered in 1985 and has been critically acclaimed. Mercifully, Battlefield is only 70 minutes long and performed sans intermission (and sans Sanskrit, as the four actors’ dialogue is all in English) - the only thing epic about this production is its Brechtian style, which BTW does an excellent job of alienating viewers from the story, which is mostly told and little shown on a bare stage with its boards trod upon by barefoot thesps. There are just a few bamboo trimmings that would have gladdened the heart of Jerzy Grotowski, that fan of a poor theater. (Whoever designed this minimalist set has the world’s second easiest job, behind only cashiers with seats at 99 cent stores.)


Battlefield seems to be an abbreviated version of The Mahabharata, perhaps presenting the Hindu poem’s “greatest hits” in a rendition that makes it more accessible for audiences who are carbuncle averse. The themes are indeed weighty, as man (and woman - Karen Aldridge) ponder war and peace, humans’ inhumanity to humans, time, death, destiny, miracles, truth, returning to nature and other philosophical topics. In other words, this is no toe-tapping Broadway musical - although the quartet of actors are accompanied by percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori, who periodically pounds the sharkskin on what appears to be a traditional Japanese drum.


This may not be true in India, but for most Westerners, this is one of those shows where one must read program notes in order to put everything into context and to be able to grasp what is being said and taking place onstage. Although costume designer Oria Puppo’s costumes have a nod towards the Indian (“dot, not feather,” as comic Maz Jobrani, who is married to a woman whose origins are from the subcontinent, puts it), the apparel is mostly, like what passes for a stage set, pretty nondescript.


Following the opening night performance, there was a talkback. If Brook or Carrière participated, I would have stayed to hear what they had to say and perhaps to tell them how much I liked their previous work, such as Brook’s 1963 screen version of Lord of the Flies or the sly, wry wit of Carrière’s screenplays for Bunuel’s 1970s’ classics The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, et al. But since the talkback was with Aldridge and the three other actors - Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba and Irishman Sean O’Callaghan - I decided to go home and watch Fargo instead, which I’m sure I enjoyed heaps more than if I had set through their Q&A. (BTW, during Battlefield there is a little bit of droll audience participation that momentarily livens things up.)


This short run of Battlefield gives Angeleno thee-a-tuh audiences a rare opportunity to experience the work of those masters, Brook or Carrière - live and onstage.


Battlefield is being performed Friday, May 26 at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, May 27 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, May 28 at 2:00 p.m. in the Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: (310)746-4000; for tickets (310) 746.4000; www.thewallis.org/.