Peter Brook’s Musicality

ItalyItaly Battlefield from the Mahabharata, written by Jean-Claude Carrièrre: C.I.C.T. Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. Music by Toshi Tsuchitori; Costumes by Oria Puppo; Lighting by Philippe Vialatte. Teatro Argentina, Rome 14.5.2016. (JB)

Peter Brook’s Musicality

At ninety, Peter Brook is back, as fresh and vital and focused with a seventy-minute theatre experience, based on an episode from the Mahabharata. Most astonishing is Brook’s ear: he brings into sharp focus what the rest of us can only vaguely hear. Walter Pater said, all art constantly aspires to the condition of music. Brook’s art doesn’t so much aspire to music: it is music.

The Italian verb sentire covers listening and feeling, and both senses are valid in the present proposal. Most Westerners have a vague feeling of their indebtedness to ancient Greece and may even know that Greek tragedy and comedy owe their debt to the Homeric stories, which circulated orally for centuries before someone – probably in the eighth century BC – committed them to a form in which we know them today. Richard Jenkyns, emeritus professor of Classics and Public Orator at Oxford, has just brought out a superbly entertaining book, Classical Literature (Pelican, an imprint of Penguin books) in which he shows how our daily lives and thoughts are imbued with Homeric sound bites.

In the summer of 1985, Peter Brook’s Paris-based company, C.I.C.T. Théatre des Bouffes du Nord, opened the Avignon Festival with their staging of the Mahabharata. This then came to Prato near Florence in a disused transport depot, already baptized by Luca Ronconi. It was offered here in two versions: either three consecutive evenings, each of about three hours, or a marathon of nine hours with two intervals on the same day. I opted for the marathon.  The Paris-based company performed a French translation (Jean-Claude Carriére) of the Sanskrit original.  My knowledge of French is very rudimentary but I did have some knowledge (though no expertise) of the Mahabharata. But I was convinced that Brook would have heard much more than me from the Sanskrit text (of which my knowledge is zero).  At a lunch ahead of the marathon he thanked me for the courage of my curiosity and asked me to tell him at one of the intervals what I had made of the experience. Like all Brook’s theatre this was unique.  Never was an ancient text so perfectly illuminated. My ignorance of French ought to have been a handicap. But it wasn’t. Its musicality (I do have some music training) put into focus the essence of the stories, some of which I knew. And not just the musicality of the spoken French word (which in lesser hands would have been one-removed) but in the rhythms of the movements, the ritualization of some scenes, the actual musicians themselves, some of whom were participants in the saga, and costumes and lighting all harmonized into an enthralling Brook  invention.

Battlefield, the present seventy minute show, also written by Jean-Claude Carriére, but in English this time (played with Italian surtitles in Rome) is co-directed with Brook’s long-time collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, and takes us through the final episode of the Mahabharata. But if this comes at the end, it is also a beginning,  prompting T.S. Eliot’s reminder in his second poem of the Four Quartets: In my beginning is my end. The saga deals with the aftermath of war between two kingly cousins. The opening soliloquy of the “winning” king, superbly spoken by Jared McNeill, is resonant:

Poverty is not glorious.

Nor is sadness, Nor is solitude.

I killed millions of men,

….. This victory is a defeat.

It would be hard to imagine George W Bush or Tony Blair having such thoughts following the Iraq war. It is Brook’s declared objective to bring our attention to the wisdom of ancient texts for today’s needs. Some London critics have questioned his success in this. (Battlefield played at London’s  Young Vic.) This clearly remains a question of, For those who have ears, and all that.

Battlefied brought back my enjoyment of Britten’s Church Parables, so successfully staged by Rome Opera at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. I first wondered if that might have been a more appropriate venue for Battlefield. But no. The Teatro Argentina took a direct bombing during the War (Rossini’s Barbiere had had its premiere here) and was some forty years in the rebuilding. For elderly Romans, this show in this venue had particular resonance.

My memories of the Church Parables were also invoked through Brook’s actual music. Toshi Tsuchitori is much more than the world’s leading performer of ancient Japanese drums. He is Brook’s composer as well as conductor. He begins and ends the show, seated throughout with the actors and linking each short scene with improvised musical commentary which looks forwards as well as backwards and which is clearly as much for the players as the audience. He had one ancient drum (Britten uses a whole set in the Parables) but what he got out of it was unbelievable. This was a man’s love affair with this instrument. And ours too, it turned out.

Peter Brook is the world leader of less-is-more. This staging delves into the poetry of minimalism. Any attempt at sounding actorly has obviously been severely forbidden by Brook. They have each understood that in order to deliver the poetry they have to get out of the way of the poetry. It must speak for itself.  And it does. Whether it be the voice of the “winner” king (Jared McNeill) or his wise mother (Carole Karemera) his blind cousin king (Sean O’Callughan) or the victims of the War (all played Ery Nzaramba). These four actors are the entire cast and they all perform with an admirable blandness.  In the Japanese Noh play (Britten’s basis) the actors wore masks. In Brook’s Battlefield, their own faces are their masks, expressive in their expressionlessness.

These actors have learned the art of withholding their art to make it more real. Their very withholding makes the audience reach out to them. Theatrical communication was never so powerful. It was charmingly impressive when the worm (Ery Nzaramba) tries to cross a busy war-torn highway. Laughter with the tragedy here.

Oria Puppo’s understated costumes are by turns dignified or speaking the language of the poor, but poor who have some grasp of the meaning of life, with their mostly pastel-shade colours and simple, sweeping cuts. The costumes for the most part envelop the actors rather than fitting them. That in turn adds its own musicality to the show. Phlippe Vialatte’s lighting is marvelously evocative of dawn and dusk. Everything in the Mahabharata happens at those times. But gradually, of course. Like eternity itself.

Battlefield makes bold bids. Astonishingly, it delivers on its promises.

Jack Buckley


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