Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A 1987 review of Peter Brook's "Mahabharata"

I have not written about Peter Brook's "Mahabharata", which I saw a month ago at the remodeled Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, spread over three nights (there also was a 9+ hour hour staging). It stopped well short of greatness. Arthur Bonner said it was awful! The reviews, too, were generally mixed. I think it was greatly overrated and tended to become gimmicky. The first two parts moved well (in pace) and were enjoyable. The game of dice itself wasn't very well done, and the emotions involved just did not get conveyed. The third part ("The War") left me disappointed -- there wasn't the vibrancy one expects, especially having been brought up seeing battle scenes in Yakshagana. The Gita itself was reduced to one minute of whispering between two actors, followed by a cringeworthy one minute of Vishwaroopadarshan -- it was terrible because the actor who played Krishna had a rather pompous affectation (somehow RADA did not go well with Krishna here!). The conclusion of the play was, to use a popular Americanism, "wimpy".

The play had its moments though. The theater had been imaginatively modeled, left half stripped down, with a clay stage that had a canal at the back and a pool up front. The best thing about the play was the sets -- the Indian textiles and handicrafts that were used. A lot of the stagecraft was imaginative -- the use of space and the stage, but at times got contrived, especially the pyrotechnics. It (the stagecraft) was fortunately not confined to second-hand renderings of Indian folk theatre and dance drama, but dipped into far-eastern theatre and possibly also African theatre.

A lot has been written about the multi-ethnic cast. Initially the variety of accents was distracting, but I soon found myself enjoying the non-English tones far more than the English ones. Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi and the actress who played Gandhari were excellent. Duryodhana, Karna, Yudhishthira, Bhima and Drona were well acted. Krishna and, to a lesser extent, Vyasa, definitely not.

I haven't seen Carriere's text (the English version), but not much stood out. The only scenes which transcended theatre were the scenes where Pandu is cursed by the dying doe, and when Yudhishthira answers Yama's questions at the lake. The other powerful scenes, such as Kunti's revelation to Karna, come from the epic itself.

On the other hand , the depiction of supremely tragic moments such as when Yudhishthira replies to Drona that Ashwaththhama (and sotto voce "the elephant") is dead, or when Krishna breaks every rule of war, led to audience reactions which indicated that they felt that these were (Ollie North style) "neat ideas". Maybe that is how the US society views war tactics in these Reagan years.

I really cannot recall anything remarkable about the music. It was not as engaging as in folk Indian theatre, and id not seem inventive rhythmically or melodically.

No, the play did not have more than "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead".