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FESTVAL: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTS : THE LONGEST STORY EVER TOLD : Translated from Sanskrit to French to English, compressed from more than 100,000 stanzas into nine hours of performance, 'The Mahabharata' is a massive stage marathon gleaned from a classic Indian poem

August 16, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Sylvie Drake is a theater columnist and critic for The Times.

It took 10 centuries for "The Mahabharata" to achieve its present form. Peter Brook was quicker. It took the expatriate British director only 10 years to deliver a three-part, nine-hour stage version of this Indian masterwork.

Together with French writer and long-time associate Jean-Claude Carriere, Brook took the longest poem ever written, had it translated into French from the original Sanskrit (by hook and by crook, since neither he nor Carriere knows Sanskrit) and compressed its more than 100,000 stanzas into nine hours of performance. Thus was born the massive stage marathon, staged by Brook, that played to capacity audiences two years ago at Avignon and in Paris.

Now Brook, who has worked and resided in Paris for the past 19 years, has gone a step further. He has translated all nine hours of Carriere's French script into English, and brings us his English version as the centerpiece of the Los Angeles Festival.

How did he and Carriere do it?

"The decision was simple," says the 62-year-old Brook--a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man with translucent blue eyes, a pale pink face and hair fading to white. "It was clear that this was something of great antiquity and at the same time more contemporary than a play about the (hydrogen) bomb because it tells us about human nature, rather than human error.

"One (felt) like 19th-Century archeologists discovering a buried city," he says, his hushed tones competing with the clatter of dishes and the hiss of espresso machines at the brasserie where we met on the Place de la Bastille. "To come upon something of such clear universal meaning is like finding the library at Alexandria."

Brook couldn't pinpoint exactly when he and Carriere began putting the work on its feet. It was, he said, a continual process of education, preparation, workshops and occasional trips to India.

"We have a permanent nucleus," he explained, "so we began doing some things at once. We had a Kathakali professor who came and spent two months with us, years ago. We did a workshop just on the relationship between music and words . . . . It was not in watertight compartments."

"The Mahabharata" played outdoors at Avignon and indoors at the Bouffes du Nord, Brook's theater in Paris. In Los Angeles we'll get the best of both. The show will be done on a sound stage at Hollywood's Raleigh Studios, a space vast enough to simulate the outdoors and still provide the shelter and focus of an indoor experience.

"We thought of playing it in the open air," Brook says, "and for several months we looked for sites," but he scrapped the idea because of fire hazard ("The Mahabharata" uses many open flames), noise regulations and the unreliability of the September weather.

As for his French-into-English translation, "The biggest problem," he acknowledges, "was the length.

"What was interesting was penetrating deeper into the inexhaustible differences between the two languages. I've worked with Jean-Claude for years, on translations in both directions," he says, listing Carriere's "The Conference of the Birds" and "The Ik" (which played UCLA in 1976 and remains "close to the heart" for Brook), Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens," "Measure for Measure," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"The great virtues of French are purity and simplicity and in a way transparency," Brook adds. "Jean-Claude is a very pure writer. He made himself a list of words to use and words to avoid until his language could have no overtones that evoked the long associations: European, middle-aged, Christian associations.

"But a model of transparency in French becomes colorless in English. The texture of English (is meaty), which is what makes it good for theater and why the English actor plays more slowly and savors the individual word more than the flourish of a sentence. So to make it English, I had to make it muscular."

About half of the original French-speaking company will also perform in the English-speaking version and many of the multinational actors had to learn the English over a period of about a year. It was hard work, in the spirit of "The Mahabharata." To quote Brook: "Another epic task. But the people who are doing it again," he says, "through doing it in a new language, have everything reopened for them. So, in a way, the difficulty is a great help."

Brook's auditions for recruits from outside the company were as unusual as the rest of the project.

"We look for indefinably precise things, if I can say that," he says. "It's openness, but openness linked to a specific talent. Many people in the theater are talented but closed, or interested only in their own image. There has to be a personal signature. Talent is a certain kind of (cultural) experience, which is why the international aspect (of the company) is so important. Each person has to bring, quite literally, his own 'color.' It's a small group and there's no place for two people who are roughly the same."

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