Peter Brook, still leading

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday April 26, 2017
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Legendary theater director Peter Brook will be on stage<br>at the Geary Theater for a free moderated discussion on May 1. Photo: Graeme<br>Robertson
Legendary theater director Peter Brook will be on stage
at the Geary Theater for a free moderated discussion on May 1. Photo: Graeme
Robertson

Peter Brook may be a living legend, but at age 92, he's a legend whose laurels are secondary to figuring out what his next project will be. With the international tour of Battlefield, his latest work now at ACT's Geary Theater, local audiences will have the chance to spend time with the man himself. Brook along with longtime collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne will be at the Geary on May 1 for an onstage conversation with ACT dramaturg Michael Paller. Admission is free; advance reservations are at act-sf.org.

One topic sure to arise is the decision to return to The Mahabharata, the epic Sanskrit narrative set in ancient India that dates back as far as 900 BC. Brook's 1985 stage adaptation ran nine hours with a cast of 26 actors and musicians, and it became one of Brook's signature pieces and toured the world. On the other hand, Battlefield runs about 70 minutes and travels with a cast of four and one musician.

The cast of Battlefield enacts a story adapted from The Mahabharata, the second time director Peter Brook has turned to the ancient Sanskrit narrative tale of war that is now at ACT's Geary Theater. Photo: Richard Termine

Despite the reduced circumstances of the new production, reactions remain outsized. When it debuted in London last year, The Guardian's Michael Billington called it "a dazzling piece of theater," and when it traveled to New York last fall, Ben Brantley in The New York Times praised it as "an elegiac play of stark and uncommon beauty."

Brooks said in an interview last year that the notion of returning to The Mahabharata hadn't even been a thought in the background when suddenly it was in the foreground. "In over 50 years with all our projects, it was hardly ever about what we were going to do next," Brook said. "It's more like a forest that you have to go through, and then suddenly something presents itself. The Mahabharata made itself felt to [co-adapter and co-director] Marie-Helene Estienne, [playwright] Jean-Claude Carriere, and to myself like an answer to all these queries about the present day."

The war in Syria was certainly an impetus, as whoever eventually wears the victor's crown will rule over a decimated country. It's a parallel to how The Mahabharata concludes. "One of the lines which was there with us at the very start is when King Yudishtira, this leader who's won this enormous battle, tearing a family apart, massacring hundreds and hundreds of people on this vast battlefield, asks the question, 'What now?' It's the question we wish all our soldiers, generals, and leaders would ask, and realize that a victory can also be a defeat."

It might seem depressing that history hasn't proven to be much of a lesson after centuries and even millennia, but Brook thinks rather it should make us feel modest about our moments on the planet. "One of the most stupid questions, I'm afraid, that I've been asked was, 'Do you think your show can change the world?' But I am happy at the end when people carry something with them. By the time they're out on the street, maybe that something has vanished, but not completely. We can only say that in our tiny, mini-world of the theater that something can still be positive. And that's all."

 

Nancy Shelby plays a widow whose volunteer service opens surprising doors (including interest from a doctor played by Soren Oliver) in one of the stories from Alan Bennett's Smut. Word for Word presents. Photo: Mel Solomon

Smut merchants

There is a genteel veneer to British author Alan Bennett and his writings. At least that's the impression he often leaves. "People don't read you too closely," he said. "I always feel over-appreciated but underestimated." And so the author of such plays as The History Boys and The Habit of Art in addition to dozens of books and screenplays decided it was time for some Smut. That is the title of his collection of two short stories published in 2011, with one of those stories getting the Word for Word treatment at Z Below.

"One reason I wrote these two stories was to outflank my fans, or those of my readers who expect me to write a certain kind of thing," Bennett told The Paris Review in 2012. "Sometimes, like Mrs. Donaldson, you just want to break out. You don't want to shock them, quite, but you do want to surprise them. It's about not wanting to be thought of as cozy."

Mrs. Donaldson is the title character in the short story that Word for Word will present verbatim, just as it appears on the page. In "The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson," the character is a respectable widow now expected to decline any vibrancy life still has to offer. Played by Nancy Shelby, she takes a part-time job at a medical school as a "simulated patient" where her job is to present often-embarrassing conditions for students to practice treating " while she also draws unexpected attention from the doctors. When one of the students and his girlfriend become lodgers, Mrs. Donaldson is willing to forgive overdue rent for the pleasure of watching them have sex. And then she serves post-coital tea and biscuits.

Amy Kossow is directing Smut, which Word for Word has subtitled An Unseemly Story. Performances at Z Below run May 10-June 11. Tickets are available at zspace.org.