'Battlefield' review or 'But where's the blood?'

Battlefield, Jean-Claude Carrière
Young Vic Theatre, 5th February 2016

You could practically taste the reverence in the air on Friday night at the UK premier of Peter Brook’s Battlefield’. Rarely have I seen an audience so ready and willing to be awed. But despite this palpable excitement, ‘Battlefield’ is a tremendous disappointment. There are a few wise lines that snag in the air and tremble and some fleeting scenes that feel rich and special – but there’s little to delight in or chew on here. ‘Battlefield’ has all the sparseness of a trademark Brook production but little of the depth or sparkle.

The show is based on the epic Indian war poem ‘Mahabharata’, originally nearly 2 million words long. When Brook first staged this story 30 years ago, he worked with Jean-Claude Carrière’s 9 hour play. This latest version is just over an hour. You’d think that’d make for a punchy production, but ‘Battlefield’ is a meandering affair – a trickling tributary of the tumbling river Ganga that rushes through this tale.

The story begins in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, which has torn apart families and left the land strewn with corpses, ‘carnivorous creatures’ and wailing women. Yudishtira (Jared McNeill) is now King and finds himself burdened with responsibility, sorrow and doubt. ‘Battlefield’ is the story of this troubled (and slightly preoccupied) King, who travels the land and attempts to answer that humdinger of a question: ‘Where is justice?’

And so, with Toshi Tsuchitori’s drumming pattering away in the background, McNeill’s King traipses about an empty stage looking for answers. It takes a while. After much softly-spoken pondering (doesn’t this King have business to attend to?), the King finally comes across a wise chap draped in a yellow blanket (Ery Nzaramba). Said wise man shares some philosophical anecdotes and the two reflect on Death, Time, Destiny – and Snakes. At one point, a worm (Sean O’Callaghan) pops up and informs us that he is trying to escape his destiny and avoid being crushed by the wheels of a carriage. We solemnly chuckle and muse, heads bowed, at the sanctity of the most humble of lives.

There are plenty more ‘enlightening’ stories along the way - including a bizarre encounter between the new King and a dodgy mongoose. But there’s so little theatrical heat in here. All the trudging around between the stories feels like dead time and, once the stories kick off, they feel a bit pat. Sure, there are some twinkling lessons in here about humility in the face of the great circle of life, which will continue to rotate regardless of our successes or sorrows – but we’ve heard these lessons before, and we’ve seen them expressed in much more interesting ways. There are, admittedly, some beautiful moments that speak of the fluidity of existence, when rivers, animals and people seem to slide into each, with little more than a few sweeps of a coloured blanket. But these scenes are fleeting and much of the production feels flat and lifeless; a great ponderous sigh, tired and spent.