At 92, director Peter Brook engages the world

The Guthrie's production of "Battlefield"
Jared McNeill, Sean O'Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba and Carole Karemera in the Guthrie Theater's WorldStage Series presentation of Battlefield.
Caroline Moreau

It is the end of a brutal battle. Victors and losers sit among piles of bodies. They feel tremendous responsibility. All want to retire, to put the carnage and the horror behind them.

"You have the authority: Stop this war," one character demands of another.

"What will be my choice then?" comes a question.

"Between a war and another war," is the answer.

The characters are part of the play "Battlefield," beginning a weeklong run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It is a tiny yet vital part of the epic Indian poem, "The Mahabharata."

Peter Brook
Peter Brook is considered one of the world's great theater directors. Now 92, he is touring the world with "Battlefield," which is based on a pivotal scene in the Indian epic poem "The Mahabharata." It opens this weekend at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

It's a story that Peter Brook has lived with for decades. Widely acknowledged as one of the world's great theater directors, Brook, 92, has traveled the globe for decades with his companies. "Battlefield" is the latest rendition of a story that he has lived with for close to 40 years.

"The Mahabharata" tells the story of two families engaged in a bitter struggle that leads to a catastrophic war. Brook grabbed the attention of critics internationally with his nine-hour production of the story in the 1980s.

Such is the epic's power, Brook said, that he felt he didn't choose it; it chose him. The play traveled the world and established the already respected Brook as a major theater figure. He then went on to other projects from his base in Paris.

"And it didn't occur to us that we would ever come back to 'Mahabharata,'" he said. "But 'Mahabharata' came back to us, in the feeling, and everything is there in the title. ... 'Battlefield' at once feels that this is about us today."

The Guthrie's production of "Battlefield"
Jared McNeill, Carole Karemera and Ery Nzaramba performing.
Caroline Moreau

Winning a war is the beginning of a struggle, Brook said, not the end.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote of the production: "And though their characters have just endured the destruction of their civilization and the slaughter of most of their families, voices are seldom raised in agony or lamentation. 'Battlefield' is steeped in the echoing silence that follows the end of a world when no one knows quite where to go from here." It's a review Brook appreciates.

"He couldn't express it better. I am very touched by him," he said.

"The Mahabharata" is believed to be at least 2,500 years old. Yet Brook said its issues are very contemporary. "Battlefield" arrives in Minnesota just days after the poison gas attack on the Syrian city of Idlib and the subsequent U.S. missile strike.

Brook said that while there will be no change in the production itself, it is the basic nature of theater that the Syrian news will be a part of the "Battlefield" experience.

"The actors cannot play, and the audience cannot sit there, without anybody having to put that into words, without having just felt, with the news coming in, something, a new intensity in the world we are living in," he said.

After 70 years as a director and having seen huge changes in the world, Brook remains confident in the power of the immediacy of live theater. Storytelling is all around us, he said — something we all do, and something we all need. "One cliche that I use with my actors always is to say, 'We are a storyteller with many heads.'"

Although this is the first time Brook has presented a piece at the Guthrie, he considered founder Tyrone Guthrie a friend and mentor. Brook recalls Guthrie shaking up the genteel expectations of the London theater in the early 1960s. Guthrie took on any obstacle like a bulldozer, Brook said.

"He just went through it," he said. "But all to enable something of a quality to emerge by itself."

It's a lesson Brook absorbed. Now in his 10th decade, Brook said he understands the attraction of retiring, but it's not for him. He would soon get bored — and there is still "Battlefield" to perform.

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