Friday, April 21, 2017

Reviewed in Brief: Battlefield at the Guthrie

"Truth, self control, asceticism, generosity, non-injury, constancy in virtue; these are the means of success, not caste or family."

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

In our increasingly global world, it seems to me that certain themes become ever more timeless and universal. Among them are a desire for peace, love of family, and the necessity for sacrifice to move society forward.

All of these themes are present in Battlefield, a previously un-performed except from Peter Brook's adaptation of the larger Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is considered a foundational text of Hinduism, including what is considered to be a historical account (itihasa, or literally "that's what happened") interspersed with lessons about morality (dharma, or Hindu moral law). Brooks previously staged the full Mahabharata story in a 1985 production in London that lasted nine hours and has been "lauded as one of the greatest theatrical achievements of all time," according to the Guthrie's press materials.

I've always been fascinated with the story of the Mahabharata and larger Hindu eschatology and fables. As a person born in the Christian tradition, it has always seemed so much larger than life and possesses not only beautiful stories but really rich, introspective parables on morality and civility. Battlefield is the perfect excerpt from the larger text to encapsulate these lessons and present them in a friendly way to an audience unfamiliar with the intricacies of the larger story.

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

It helps to have a little background: Battlefield is set immediately after the large war between ruling families (the kings of which are brothers), the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Pandavas have been massacred, but it has come at great cost to the Kauravas who have lost many of their own; in fact, only a handful are left. The Kauravan ruler Dhitrarashtra is abject in his grief and adopts his nephew Yudishtira to be his heir. Yudishtira reluctantly accepts and finds himself seeking wisdom from many sources, which range from his grandfather to Krishna himself. Yudishtira eventually reaches an uneasy peace with his inner turmoil, and helps see his uncle and mother to the end of their days as they serve penance in a forest. Interwoven throughout the family tragedy are many parables illuminating the perils of power, the elements that make a wise leader, ways to provide forgiveness for yourself and others, and the importance of time, fate and destiny in determining the outcome of anyone's life.

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

The cast is kept lean and clean, with only four members. Jared McNeill stars as Yudishtira, whose inner turmoil at ascending to his ill-gotten throne is at its peak. McNeill has a dry delivery that manages somehow to encapsulate a thousand years of complex feeling. McNeill forces the audience to empathize with Yudishtira, and it is through Yudishtira's training that we are treated to a range of beautifully told and imaginatively staged parables. The remaining three cast members (Ery Nzaramba, Carole Karemera and Sean O'Callaghan) beautifully weave the rest of the narrative through McNeill's anchoring story, gracefully switching between characters and story lines with simple "costume" changes that often require no more than the addition or adjustment of a colorful shawl. I loved this diverse cast, which is truly international. Despite their cultural differences, it was impossible not to feel a thread of universalism flowing through their delivery, and their wide-ranging backgrounds made the whole performance feel international and approachable. Their quiet stoicism in their roles keeps the audience's attention on the profound words of the Mahabharata; a wise choice for such an introspective script.

There really isn't much to say about the production design as it is nearly non-existent, something I found fitting for a Hindu story and the bleak setting of a battlefield's aftermath. Of note are some gorgeously primary dyed shawls and blankets that are innovatively wrapped to help create different characters. The bright hues make a powerful impact on the otherwise neutral, simple set, and laser focus the audience's attention. It's a wonderful example of how little is needed to create a good show; with some loving attention to detail and a salient script, any story can be told well with just a few well chosen props.

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

Battlefield is a 70-minute-long meditation on stage. Like any good philosophical piece it has many lessons to teach us about the limits and drawbacks of power, the ruins created by war (even a well intentioned one), the uglier side to morality, the impossibility of perfection, the wholeness of grief. Battlefield moves through you like a quiet wind, bringing a peace and stillness that seems wholly lacking in our evermore plugged in culture. I found it a refreshing, grounding performance, and it has inspired me to spend more time studying the Mahabharata for myself. Whether you are a fan of philosophy, fairy tales and parables or not, I'm sure there is something of value to be found for anyone watching Battlefield, even if it is only to spend some quiet time meditating on the state of yourself. It only runs for one more week at the Guthrie, so make sure you treat yourself to this elegant performance by a legendary director while you still can. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.