This week, we welcome Jean Claude-Carriere and his 90 minute telling of the one of the world’s oldest foundational texts The Mahabharata. In preparation, Rob Orchard shares his memories of seeing Peter Brook’s and Carriere’s theatre epic in 1987.
I think I had seen at least three productions by the legendary director Peter Brook before I experienced in one long day his epic Mahabharata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in October, 1987. I had witnessed with great pleasure his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Marate Sade, and Carmen. All were magnificent, surprising, dangerous, thrilling and refreshing in different ways. My anticipation was high.
And, the Mahabharata was a true theatre EVENT on multiple levels. It was a wildly ambitious production by Peter Brook collaborating with Jean Claude-Carriere; it was opening a new theatre space (then called the Majestic Theatre now the Harvey at BAM); and it was a nine hour marathon. You could see the production in three sections on three successive nights, or all in one day. I chose total immersion, one sitting, on a Saturday flirting with Sunday. And the sitting part was curiously key to my experience. Bear with me here. Brook’s theatre in Paris, the Bouffes du Nord, is noted for its rough hewn atmosphere, totally lacking in what he might characterize as bourgeois audience amenities. To give you a sense, at one time there had been a fire in the space and Brook kept the charred timbers exposed. It’s actually thrilling. The Majestic in Brooklyn had been empty for years. The walls and ceilings were degraded – the “decor” was what comes naturally from an abandoned facility with decades of history. The layers of “experience” of this theatre were exposed – thus it was inherently dramatic and pregnant with possibility AND humility -something Brook valued, nothing grand.
But the seats, the SEATS. Wow, like in Paris, they were benches. No cushions. Straight backs. When I sat down I truly wondered how my back was going to last nine hours. And, adjusting to that fundamental truth began what was a thrilling experience with the work. Essentially, I had to channel whatever anxiety I had with the uncomfortable seating into some sort of meditative state which as it turns out was perfect for the production. Brook’s Mahabharata was mezmerizing. The stage which flowed from the same level as the first row without any break was a vast dirt landscape (earth). Water and fire were also constants – the combined basic elements of nature. The company of 20 some actors were from a variety of cultures speaking English in a variety of accents and the music was executed by a handful of performers all playing multiple instruments. As I remember, it was expressive of mostly Asian and African idioms.
Photo by Martha Swope
The epic poem upon which the work is based doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure. The performance started quite simply as I remember with an older man telling a story to a young boy about two different struggles for power leading to war – a passing on of experience, memory and legend. And as the universe expanded and the story took on dimensions, ultimately a landscape emerged with all the complexity of humanity. I remember the men fanned the flames of conflict while the women tried to douse them. There were constant juxtapositions between aggression and peace, right and wrong, idealism, cynicism, religion, morality – you name it. The root poem after all is thought to be the longest ever written and the range of its journey pretty much embraces all of life. I don’t know how else to express it. It was one of those indelible experiences that theatre can carve into ones memory forever. The production was simultaneously riveting and distractingly dreamlike. I’d alternatively be totally focused on the specific action on stage, and diverted into an imaginative state that was deeply personal and took me down paths peculiar to me, not directed by Brook, but with his permission given the scope and personal space the production activated in everyone.
As it turns out, I had been fussing over one of those paths for days. I was taking an overnight train back to Boston immediately after the production. It was going to be a tight turn around between the end of the performance, grabbing a cab in Brooklyn and getting to Penn Station in time for the train. That and a mind busting realization that it was time change weekend. The clock turned back an hour between Saturday and Sunday and the train I was taking from New York was leaving Washington DC in Daylight Saving Time. When exactly does the clock turn back to Standard Time I wondered? Well, I discovered it was precisely during the time the train was on the track to New York. So it departed DC in one time frame and arrived in New York in another and I couldn’t get ANYONE at Amtrak to assure me they had taken that into account in the then listed departure time for my leg of the journey to Boston. That was the conundrum swimming around in my pea brain going into the production. But Brook quickly put that petty concern in perspective. His production made abundantly clear that there are more important things in the world. Whatever, doesn’t matter, I can cope.
One other antidote. The BAM Majestic renovation hadn’t been fully completed and there was just ONE toilet for men and ONE for women. The theatre was packed with over 1,000 people for nine hours and believe me the human complexity of the Mahabharata was on display in the behavior of those queuing up for the toilets. We were in New York and it wasn’t pretty.