A Guilt-Ridden Winner Takes Center Stage In Peter Brook's 'Battlefield' The theater director's latest production was inspired by the civil war in Syria. It tells the story of Yudishtira, a prince who is overwhelmed by guilt after he wins a bloody war.
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A Guilt-Ridden Winner Takes Center Stage In Peter Brook's 'Battlefield'

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A Guilt-Ridden Winner Takes Center Stage In Peter Brook's 'Battlefield'

A Guilt-Ridden Winner Takes Center Stage In Peter Brook's 'Battlefield'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are few living theater directors who can convince audiences to stay up all night in an abandoned quarry to watch the staging of a Sanskrit poem. But 30 years ago, director Peter Brook did just that. He put on what came to be known as one of the great theater events of the 20th century, "The Mahabharata." There were two dozen actors. The stage was covered in dirt. Jets of flame erupted from it or simulated rain turned it to mud. It was nine hours long, and it was epic. Now Peter Brook is back with another installment of the same poem, but this time he's thinking small. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Peter Brook started working to bring "The Mahabharata" to the stage towards the end of the Vietnam War. Now, there's a civil war in Syria with no end in sight, so the 91-year-old director decided it was time to re-explore a part of the poem. It starts after a catastrophic war, and the play is called "Battlefield."

PETER BROOK: We wanted to concentrate on one thing only, which is not all the causes that lead to a war, not all the horrors of a great massacre, but what is the position of the great leader who realizes that he has done what he set out to do? He has won.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BATTLEFIELD")

JARED MCNEILL: (As Yudishtira) This victory is a defeat. Battlefield is covered by endless heaps of corpses. Golden breastplates and jewels of the heroes glitter in the sun.

LUNDEN: The winner is Yudishtira, a prince who's about to become king. After the battle, he's overwhelmed by guilt. He wants to retreat into the forest to live a life of penance. But Peter Brook says...

BROOK: You have to live to the responsibility of the person who has won, which is even greater than the responsibility of a person who has lost.

LUNDEN: So the prince seeks advice from a deity.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BATTLEFIELD")

MCNEILL: (As Yudishtira) The other war, where will it take place, on a battlefield or in my heart?

LUNDEN: And Krishna answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BATTLEFIELD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Krishna) I don't see a real difference. The earth will need you. She will enjoy your victory. She will need you to wake up again, to recover her beauty, her calm, her harmony.

LUNDEN: "Battlefield" looks at death and destiny, the cyclical nature of war and peace, epic ideas, but it does it with just four actors, some different colored shawls, a few sticks and a drummer.

BROOK: We're doing it with a tiny group who are, collectively, one storyteller. And that makes it possible to do what a storyteller can do, which is both open up an infinitely large cosmos, which a storyteller can do with one word, with one look, with one finger, and something about the human problems, which the storyteller can find within him or herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

LUNDEN: The show's drummer, Toshi Tsuchitori tells the story as much as the actors. He sits at the side of the stage, punctuating the observations about war with drumbeats that can be ferocious or underscoring a parable about destiny with delicacy. He says every performance of "Battlefield" is different. He improvises based on where the show plays - it's toured all over the world - and the feeling in the room.

TOSHI TSUCHITORI: Every day, I work with actors, one hour's preparation. That is my compose.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

LUNDEN: The play is only about an hour, but Peter Brook says it's stuffed with many parables from "The Mahabharata."

BROOK: The most extraordinary, powerful, passionate and great ideas about truth, about life, about death, to make those instantly available to us through a story, which is touching, comic, human...

LUNDEN: And those are just the kind of stories Peter Brook has been telling audiences for over 70 years. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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