Social Buttons

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Battlefield with Deep Roots: Peter Brook's 30 Year Endeavor

Jared McNeill, Sean O’Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba, Carole Karemera. Photo: Caroline Moreau
By Jess Goldschmidt

Before it reached America’s shores, it was already a sensation. Making its world premiere in 1985 at the Avignon Theater Festival, Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata was performed in a massive, open limestone quarry filled with gleaming yellow sand. It shattered the limits of epic theater, sweeping audiences into an all-night staging of Hinduism’s most revered saga, with rivers of fire, hails of arrows, and an ensemble of actors and musicians from 18 countries. It has been said in various ways: “Everything that exists is in The Mahabharata... what isn’t in The Mahabharata doesn’t exist anywhere.”

Over the course of the production’s 10 years of development, Brook assembled some key collaborators, from musician Toshi Tsuchitori—who traveled to India for nearly two years to learn classical instrumentation—to the woman who would become his right hand for the next 30 years, Marie-Hélène Estienne. In the early 80s, Estienne went to India at Brook’s behest to simply observe and report back on the details of as many adaptations of the production’s source material as she could.

Tosh Tsuchitori. Photo: Caroline Moreau
Meanwhile, in downtown Brooklyn, Brook was assisting BAM President Harvey Lichtenstein tear down the plywood outside an abandoned former movie palace. (Brook later recalled, “we got a ladder and a flashlight and climbed in a window.”) They were hoping to excavate the perfect venue to house The Mahabharata’s US premiere, and thus the Majestic Theater underwent an unusual renovation. Both Lichtenstein and Brook agreed it was vital to preserve the earthy, distressed authenticity of the ruined theater for The Mahabharata’s needs. The job, according to the architect, “required constant surveillance to make sure the contractors didn’t make things look too nice.”

When it opened in the fall of 1987, it received widespread acclaim, thanks in no small part to its distinctive atmosphere: a space intimate enough to ignite the story’s whispered magic, but grand enough to house 20,000 pounds of mud and an actual flowing river. The Mahabharata did more than cement Peter Brook’s reputation as a master; it inscribed his aesthetic imprint onto the very walls of the space that would become the much-beloved BAM Harvey Theater. This partnership has continued through the decades, with the Harvey playing host to Brook’s productions of The Man Who (1995 Spring), The Tragedy of Hamlet (2001 Spring), and, most recently, The Suit (2013 Winter/Spring).

And now, in the very space he consecrated for The Mahabharata’s Brooklyn debut, Brook returns at age 91, with both Estienne and Tsuchitori, for Battlefield, a radically minimalist, one-hour retelling of the Sanskrit poem’s most integral thread. After three decades, these brilliant theatrical minds continue to derive new meaning from the epic. Perhaps now a bit more hushed in the face of life’s infinite mysteries, Estienne said in a recent interview with The Guardian: “The Mahabharata is not afraid of death—it tells you to see it differently. That is what we try to give to people, that calmness.”

Battlefield comes to the BAM Harvey Theater Sep 28—Oct 9 as part of the 2016 Next Wave Festival, and subscription packages are available now.

Jess Goldschmidt is a copywriter at BAM.

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.