What do you do when you've encountered the world's longest poem of more than 3,000 words from around 2,000 years ago? You stage a nine-hour play, as did Peter Brook in 1985 with the Mahabharata, a prose that compiles myths, legends and folklore set in ancestral India. The production is one of Brook's most lauded, sealing his reputation as a theatre titan.
The epic returns three decades after its time on stage with Battlefield. Set after the battles which happened towards the end of the Mahabharata, the 90-year-old was inspired by the ongoing tussles in West Asia when crafting this story. A Peter Brook play is a once-in-a-lifetime must-see, and we're in luck — co-commissioned by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), Battlefield will run for five nights here.
We caught up recently with SRT's artistic director, Gaurav Kripalani, to find out what to expect.
You obviously look up to Peter Brook. What do you admire most about him and his works?
Peter Brook is almost every theatre practitioner's guru. He has inspired generations, and continues to do so at the age of 90. He changed my perception of what good theatre is, and what it means. I grew up on average blackbox theatre or mega musicals with crashing helicopters. Brook opened my eyes to the magic of pure simplicity that also tells the truth. And when you have these honest performances, you don't need bells and whistles to be able to make it phenomenal.
For the uninitiated, what should someone expect from a Peter Brook play?
One shouldn't expect bells and whistles. The magic lies in the simplicity. And what appears so simple at first, leaves you reflecting for days. Peter Brook's plays focus on the truth, and his wonderful cast always conveys that. You never feel like you are watching a false or hammy performance by any of his actors.
Why has the story been resurrected, and why now?
Brook felt the time was right. Both the victors and vanquished sit on the battlefield after the war and reflect on how such a tragedy could have been avoided. He wishes our world leaders would do the same, saying "When one watches the news one is angry, disgusted, furious. But in the theatre one can live through all that and leave more confident, braver, believing that one can face up to life."
How will the story of Battlefield touch audiences today?
See above. It's heartbreaking that thousands of years later, we still go to war.
Will audiences be lost if they haven't seen the Mahabharata?
The beauty of Battlefield is that you don't need to know anything about the Mahabharata. It is a stand-alone story told simply and clearly.
What legacy do you think Peter Brook will leave behind?
I can count on one hand the number of directors whose work I would fly anywhere in the world to watch. Peter Brook is one of them. To be able to co-produce a Peter Brook play is a dream come true. I need to pinch myself every time I think that this work will have its international premiere in Singapore.
Peter Brook's Battlefield will be staged at Capitol Theatre from 17 to 21 November. Tickets here.