Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Brook's Battlefield

Battlefield: Ezy Nzaramba
The late Pierre Boulez, David Attenborough and Peter Brook all seem to be proving it: 90 is the age to be.  Many cultures have known for a long time that we need to value our Elders - at last the West seems to be catching up.  And Brook's production Battlefield, created at the age of 90, is actually his finest work for some time.

It's a return to the territory of his famous Mahabharata production - although where that was epic and vast, this is intimate, brief and personal.  This seems to me to offset some of the criticisms Rustom Bharucha made of Mahabharata: unlike the earlier production, Battlefield does not turn the Hindu myth into a Hollywood blockbuster or a Shakespearean tragedy.  Rather, it makes it the occasion for contemplation, introspection, and a complex emotional journey.  The play begins after the climax of Mahabharata, the great war, and deals with the question Eliot asked of the contemporary age: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"

It is an urgent, necessary question for an artist to be asking at the end of his life, in what may well be his last piece of work.  In many ways, the play embodies that sense of an unending quest, with older characters attempting to make sense of the world they are about to leave.  Bhishma, who can only die with his own agreement, clings to life in the face of a mortal wound, speaking of how a dying man can long for honey.  When at last he leaves his body, in a moment of extraordinary theatrical simplicity and  power, it is his mother, the River goddess Ganga, who expresses a terrifying, astonishing grief.

I'm making it all sound quite heavy - but actually the play is full of humour too, with Bhishma and other characters telling parables, which are winningly enacted using only cloths and sticks for set and props.  The story of the worm crossing the road who loves his life is at once endearing and provocative.

Being Brook, all of this leads towards a spiritual meaning; and, being Hindu, that meaning is essentially one of resignation.  Yudishtira, left to rule in the aftermath of the war, comes to accept the suffering that has gone before, recognising it as yet another "illusion" (the Sanskrit term is Maya).  Both Michael Billington and Aleks Sierz have challenged this in their reviews of the production, asking whether we can really accept (say) the suffering of the Syrian refugees as something of no real consequence.  This dismissal of human pain could seem particularly callous in relation to the play, given the presence of Rwandan performer Carole Karemera at its heart.  Hinduism can be criticised for its acquiescence in human suffering, partly the result of its cultural origins in India, and its role in the maintenance of power structures.  However, in absolute terms, the theology is right - human lives are tiny, inconsequential things in terms of the scale of space and time, of course they are.  But, as Sartre argued, that doesn't mean we should not care about them - it simply means we have to acknowledge that it is our own decision to choose morality, and that the compassion we feel for the Syrian child or the Rwandan widow is our own compassion, willed and active.  Strangely, this makes our humanity more significant, rather than less.  It is Carole Karemera who gives expression to this deep grief in our condition, through the prolonged wail of the bereaved mother-goddess.

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