Horrors of war recalled on minimalist stage

Horrors of war recalled on minimalist stage

Sarah Lafferty witnessed the ‘triumphant’ return to directing of a 90 year old ‘legend’

Last Friday night’s performance of the play Battlefield, at the Young Vic, marked an historic moment in London : the return of Peter Brook to the West End. At ninety years of age, this towering theatre director has produced groundbreaking work, won reams of awards and his book The Empty Space is considered essential to the study of drama.

Horrors of war recalled on minimalist stage

After the show, I spoke with actor Sean O’Callaghan who told me: “Backstage we could all feel the anticipation and excitement from the audience.”

In 1985 Brook directed one of his landmark projects, a nine hour adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata. Battlefield is a one hour play also based on this ancient text, and sees four actors explore the horrific questions that war evoke.

O’Callaghan, it’s fair to say, gets to stretch his considerable acting ability: “One minute I’d be playing a blind king, the next I was a worm.”

He was referring to one of the stories within the story, in which he’s reincarnated as a worm and about to be squashed by a chariot wheel when a woman asks him why he even cares about living.

This is one of many beautifully integrated scenes which showcase Brook’s masterful ability to draw the audience out, and then reinsert them in a heightened emotional state.

Brook, alongside co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne, has created a brilliantly sparse set design which allows the actors Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan to move about freely while playing a variety of roles.

Horrors of war recalled on minimalist stage

The stage is covered in orange cloth, with three vertical bamboos in the background and other sticks laid flat on the ground. All the actors are barefooted, while brown, red and yellow cloths are passed around to symbolise props such as a river but also double as costumes.

The musician Toshi Tsuchitori is on stage throughout.

His drumming marks transitions in the story while adding great intensity.

Brook and Estienne were seated left of stage and afterwards I was fortunate, along with other admirers, to shake hands with this gracious man.

There was an overwhelming feeling amongst the audience that the cast had brought to life an ancient tale which resonates so strongly today.

The scene in which O’Callaghan’s character imagines his dead sons returning evokes pure joy followed by a wave of grief as they disappear before his eyes.

Battlefield is a mystical play about justice, death and destiny which further reinforces Brook’s legacy as our greatest living theatre director.

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