British director Peter Brook is headquartered in Paris where he heads his Centre International de Creations Theatrales, under whose auspices "The Mahabharata" was developed over the last 10 years. Joyce Reed of Los Angeles interviewed him in Avignon.
W hy did you decide to do "The Mahabharata" as a theatrical production?
Because I think that the only thing that matters in the theater is that the material should be interesting. The most interesting material that I've encountered over a number of years is "The Mahabharata."
Was there something in the legend that had a universal, modern relevance for you?
Different myths swim to the forefront at different moments of human history and at different moments of a person's life. Now this myth has a million themes but at the core of it, there is one theme that predominates--the theme of conflict. For this reason alone, "The Mahabharata" is close to our time.
I first encountered "The Mahabharata" in fact when I was working on a piece on the Vietnam War and the relevance was apparent--already there. Today, this enormous epic dealing with every shade--from the psychological to the cosmic--of the question of what is conflict , clearly concerns not just me, but all of us.
The other theme that concerns us is that "The Mahabharata" is a story told to someone. It is told to a young man in the original epic to help him understand how to become a king--which really means how to grow up, how to face life and, I think, how to live rightly in troubled times. It was the theme 3,000 years ago and is once again the theme today.
What happened in the process of bringing the story to the stage?
We (Brook and collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere) first heard "The Mahabharata" the way an Indian hears it from his mother--it was told to us (by Sanskrit scholar Philippe Lavastine--Editor.) So we had images in our minds that didn't come from reading something on the printed page.
From that, we began to talk about "The Mahabharata"--just the characters, the incidents, the dramatic nature of the material. Then we started reading it together in different translations over many months, noting different scenes, different portions, underlining different phrases.
The next stage was going to India--to go to the source, to look at India from the point of view of the continuity of Indian life through the life on the streets today, the India of 3,000 years ago that you can still find in the temples. India as it expresses itself through its enormous variety of creative arts.
Then there was the stage of making certain practical experiments. We had a workshop at our theater in Paris in which we explored with fragmentary scenes that Jean-Claude wrote for the first time, different styles of playing with people of different nationalities, with musicians, with dancers.
We had a Kathakali teacher who came and spent several months with us. One day on tour in Costa Rica, we suddenly did, for an audience of children, an improvisation of one of the scenes from "The Mahabharata." So that this many-sided work was being approached over the years from many, many different directions.
Then in our sequence of journeys to India, we started taking with us key people; certain actors, designer, musicians. One of our musicians, Toshi Tsuchitori, our Japanese percussion player and musical director, stayed for a year in India going from place to place, studying Indian music.
We did what we always do with a new production, which is to play it quietly without anybody knowing about it to preview audiences; to continue to develop the show, and for two months at the Bouffes du Nord we played previews. Each play had about eight previews with spaces in between so that we could continue working. That was the preparation.
Some production elements are repeated in your work--in "The Ik" and "Carmen," the use of sand and fire; now in "The Mahabharata," sand and fire and water.
\f7 If you'd seen "The Cherry Orchard" and "The Conference of the Birds," you would have found carpets. It depends on what a subject demands. When you start a production, you have to put everything in question. If you go into a theater and it has a wooden floor, you can't take that for granted. You have to say "is this wooden floor going to bring to the person standing on it the right support?" Maybe yes, maybe no.
We've had concrete floors, we've had brick floors and tiled floors and carpets and earth. What is necessary is that there should be a good relation between the actor, the subject and what he is standing on.
It's quite clear that with "The Ik," as a story about Africa, and with "The Mahabharata," we are working with cultures whose life comes from a relationship with nature and (which) take their reality out of the actors standing on earth, being related to the elements, to fire and to water. It's part of the storytelling.