Peter Brook's latest play takes place in the aftermath of war. One man, Prince Yudhishthira, stands surveying the battlefield. He has survived, but everyone else is dead. Before long, Yudhishthira's mother, the Queen Kunti, reveals that a famed warrior on the defeated side, killed like all the rest, had been Yudhishthira's half-brother. Yudhishthira might be the victor, but victory feels like defeat.
The opening scene of Battlefield sounds grim as I write it, but on stage we do not see the blood and the gore. And unless we have grown up with the epic — Battlefield is based on the end of The Mahabharata — it is also difficult, in the beginning at least, to get into the depths of Yudhishthira's mind and empathise with what he is experiencing. This is the challenge that Brook's play, co-commissioned by the Singapore Repertory Theatre, faces in the 70 minutes it has with the audience. Does it succeed? Here are five points that could make it go either way:
1. Its simplicity
Brook has said that he could "take any empty space and call it a bare stage". Indeed, the set of Battlefield is sparse and could be whatever you imagine it to be. This might be a drawback for those who prefer elaborate musicals with fancy pyrotechnics, but for Battlefield I found that the simplicity of the stage — the backdrop consisted of a screen that had earth tones projected on it and four large sticks— compelled me to focus on the characters and the stories they told.
2. Its symbolism
Simplicity in setting does not exclude complexity in meaning. The direction of the play makes intelligent use of simple props like a staff which doubles as a scale, or robes which double as shrouds. In this play, many things have double uses and double meanings. Even the music has symbolic force. In the background, the Japanese drummer Toshi Tsuchitori plays a rhythmic beat on the tabla. Sometimes the beat is imperceptible, as it should be. But on other occasions, the tempo rises and the texture of Toshi's hits and swipes become woven into the action onstage.
3. Its actors
There are only four actors in Battlefield, but all of them play several roles — not all human. My favourite was Ery Nzaramba's take of a wily mongoose. Nitpickers might complain that there are no Indians in the cast for what is an Indian epic, but does it really matter? I think the point here is that the questions raised by the play are meant to transcend such boundaries.
4. Its ambivalence
The postwar world of Battlefield is cast in shades of grey. I'm not familiar enough with the source text of the Mahabharata to know if the world portrayed within it is clearly delineated in black and white, good and evil. But in Brook's world, at least, good and bad is not so clear cut. In the play, we hear Krishna say, "No good man is completely good, and no bad man is completely bad." Even the assumption that a good king has to be a just king is questioned in Battlefield, and there is a sense of the futility of human action in the face of larger impersonal forces.
5. Its opacity
Battlefield is not an easy play to grasp for someone coming in culturally cold. The world depicted in it is strange. There is no narrative to speak of, and the flow of the play is episodic, much of it told in the form of fables and parables. It could be that the play speaks to what is happening now in geopolitics and religion — Syria and terrorism come to mind. But I couldn't make that connection. The play seemed more personal than that. Not all of the episodes will resonate with you, and you will likely scratch your head at one or two and go "what was that about?" But the scenes that do are likely to remain with you like a puzzle you'll mull over even after the drumbeats have long faded away.
Peter Brook's Battlefield runs till 21 November at the Capitol Theatre. Purchase your tickets here.