I'm willing to accept that, perhaps, I am not the right audience for the work of Peter Brook the acclaimed English theater and film director who once brought the epic Indian myth The Mahabharata to the New York stage to great acclaim in the 1980s, and who directed the original 1963 film version Lord of the Flies. He is a man who is clearly fond of universalizing the myths and fables of other cultures, and of the stark, abstract soliloquies that come from such works, and the work of modern playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Caryl Churchill. But I am also inclined to wonder if, catching Brook in the latter phase of a great career at age 92, I've missed out on his finest work and therefore lack the deference that another critic might have to one of the theater world's long-lived and prolific artists. Having walked into his latest production at ACT, Battlefield, admittedly, forgetting his name and keeping my mind open to what was about to unfold, I soon started piecing together that this was the same director as 2014's The Suit, which struck me as a bizarrely misogynistic and boring! adaptation of a story from Apartheid-era Johannesburg that left me mad about the 75 stultifying minutes I'd lost watching it. Similarly with Battlefield, I found that the 70-minute, no-intermission adaptation of an ancient Indian poem about war was plodding and ponderous in all the wrong ways, despite the fine efforts and occasional humor of its cast, and it shined little new light on the topics of death, destiny, and war, though these topics were much discussed.
The play is an adaptation, by Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, of the latter portion of The Mahabharata, an ancient text well known to all Hindus. It tells the story of two warring, interrelated families who are ultimately given two separate kingdoms, only to return to war and cause the death of millions. Battlefield opens as the two cousin-kings, including the victor Yudishthira (Jared McNeil), ponder the aftermath of a great battle, in which each sent their sons and family members to die. What follows are a series of disjointed fables about animals, exploring ideas of fate, death, and the ignorance of mankind, interspersed with some fantastic traditional drumming by Toshi Tsuchitori.
Much as in Brook's staging of The Suit, there is little to no set, and the music provides some scant relief between scenes that almost beg for parody in their abstraction and earnestness. This is classical acting applied to a classic text, and the performers use only a set of large blankets to transform themselves between their human characters and animals.
Brook has gotten fonder of this stripped-down, contemporary style of theater, and he says in an interview that over his career, "I gradually became more interested in the human being than in the machinery around him or her, I began not to eliminate, but to let things drop away by themselves, and I saw that something more was coming through."
That may be the case, but for me, as a theatergoer, such starkness, paired with a text as arch, meditative, and (mostly) humorless as this, leads to restlessness. I'd hate to admit this is because I've become more and more a product of the hyper-stimulated time we live in I'm actually very good at sitting still to watch theater that's two or three hours long, and I do it all the time. But I have to wonder if I'm simply set at a different tempo from a play like this, or if my impatience was more a product of a piece that needed more direction, and more artfulness, to get its message across. In the end there was nothing moving here, and no messages about war that resonated with contemporary times apart from the simple fact that war is avoidable, ugly, and bad. But I can't begrudge Mr. Brook wanting to explore those ideas again at his own pace.
Battlefield plays at ACT through May 21.