Brook is regarded as the father of multi-cultural casting – his original epic stage version of ‘The Mahabharata’ had actors from across the world…
ONE of Britain’s leading theatre directors Jatinder Verma – a pioneer himself of stage work with Tara Arts in Britain – has paid tribute to legend Peter Brook, who died in Paris on July 2, aged 97 – but Verma also expressed msigivings about ‘The Mahabharata‘ Brook brought to Glasgow in 1988.
Brook, who was a towering figure in post-war British theatre, came to global prominence with an original French language adaptation of the great Sanskrit epic, ‘The Mahabharata’ for the stage. He had moved to Paris from the UK in 1971 and had founded an experimental theatre company, the International Centre for Theatre Research. It took work to non-conventional spaces and had actors from around the world. In 1974, the company took up residence in Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris.
With a multi-cultural cast, the nine-hour production of Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata’ premiered in France in 1985, and then toured the world with an English version and a different cast coming to Glasgow.
Verma praised Brook as the “pioneering director of multi-cultural casts in Europe and Britain” – a sentiment widely expressed elsewhere (see below) – and stated that “he (Brook) still remains the standard to aspire to” when it comes to such considerations – but felt his English language Glasgow production was “a flat touristy ‘Indian’ version of the Mahabharata”.
He said the earlier French language production had been “transformative” and described the latter Glasgow show as a “disappointment”.
Verma said he had found the original deeply moving and inspiring and this was made all the more powerful, when one of the lead actors Algerian Maurice Bénichou who played Lord Krishna, spoke to the audience in Paris, about his role and what it meant to him.
Verma told acv: “I first saw Peter Brook’s version of ‘The Mahabharata’ in the original French – the last performance at his theatre, the Bouffe du Nord in Paris.
“It was a transformative experience, not least because I saw a multi-cultural cast, each making their own connections with the great Indian epic.
“This was most apparent in their gestures of respect: only the Indian actress, Mallika Sarabhai, employed the ‘namaste’ gesture – all the others employing gestures of respect from their own cultural backgrounds.
“And when the nine-hour epic ended, the Algerian actor who played Krishna, Maurice Bénichou, quietened our applause and spoke to us for half and hour about what Krishna meant to him – an astonishing and very moving performance on top of what we’d already witnessed.
“I realised afterwards that the actor knew he was not going to be in the English language version of the epic, so this made his impromptu chat even more poignant.”
The version Verma saw in Paris was in some contrast to his experience of the same production in English.
“I took a number of Tara actors to see the English version when it came to Glasgow – and at once it disappointed me: every single actor, whatever their background, had chosen to perform the ‘namaste’ gesture.
“It was as if Brook had chosen to reduce his own wonderfully eclectic multi-cultural vision to a flat touristy ‘Indian’ version of ‘The Mahabharata‘.
“This still fills me with sadness, especially as Brook was undoubtedly the leading, if not the pioneering director of multicultural casts in Europe and Britain. In that, he still remains the standard to aspire to,” the director of JV Productions told acv.
Verma who was artistic director of Tara Arts for many years helped to found the theatre outfit in 1976 and it was the only South Asian theatre company to have its own theatre and the company won many awards for its work. Verma was awarded an MBE and stepped down from Tara in 2019.
Suman Bhuchar, acv’s associate editor was among those who saw ‘The Mahabharata‘ in Glasgow.
She said: “I remember going there to see it and was bowled over by Jeffrey Kisson as Karna and Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi.”
Samir Bhamra, who leads British theatre outfit Phizzical, based in Coventry, told acv just what an impression Brook made on him on as a developing adult with an interest in the arts.
Bhamra, who is about to launch musical, ‘Bombay Superstar‘, told us: “As a teenager watching Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata’ on film, with its diverse casting and creative choices, it sparked a thought in my naïve mind that all the epics that I had grown up with, belonged to the world.”
Bernardine Evaristo, Booker Prize-winning author, who worked in the theatre in her early days, was among those who praised Brook for his use of diverse casting – at a time when few others were so comfortable with it.
“’THE IK’ (set in Uganda) at the Roundhouse in 1976 when I was 15/16 was unforgettable: multi-racial (ahead of its time), inspiring, …” She wrote on Twitter.
Matthew Xia, from the Actors Touring Company, quoted one of Brook’s most popular aphorisms.
“In the 1st lockdown – asking ‘what would Peter do?’ led to our Signal Fires project ‘Dear Tomorrow’. ‘All you need is an empty space, a protagonist an audience’ and the realisation that people had this within their own homes, they just needed a script, thank you Peter.”
Mina Anwar, theatre director and actor (currently in the ‘Life of Pi’ at the West End), also paid tribute.
“Every choice I’ve ever made has been dictated by a formless hunch rather than by strict logic,” quoting this from Brook’s ‘The Empty Space’.
In 2016, Brook returned to the UK with ‘The Battlefield’, a shorter condensed version of his ‘The Mahabharata’. We reviewed it. (See here).
Brook’s death sparked a wave of tributes from several notable creatives in India, who also took to social media to express their sadness and comment on how important Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’ had been to them.
Sarabhai, who had played one of the central female figures of the epic in Draupadi, told the Indian publication, Outlook, that Brook respected all cultures at a time when it was hardly the norm.
She feels also that he made the multi-culturalism of today possible.
“He had a deep understanding and respect for cultures all across, especially Asia and Africa. For him to take those, distil them and present them to the world was a huge service to Asian and African culture,” she told Outlook. “He used his multi-culturalism to its best advantage,” she pointed out, feeling that because he was a white man and an outsider, he connected to the western world more easily and therefore made it the passage of ‘The Mahabharata’ to the west, easier.
Abhishek Majumdar, who has had several of his plays staged in the UK, wrote on his Facebook page about the time when Brooks visited the production ‘The Djinns of Eidgah’ – a play set in Kashmir and performed at the Royal Court in 2014. (See link below).
Calling it one of the greatest moments of his life, Majumdar, wrote about him meeting Brook along with legendary (now retired) Guardian theatre critic, Michael Billington.
“I have had the privilege of meeting some of the greats of the previous generations of theatre and I have to say that when Peter Brook looked with his intensity and said something in the soft spoken firmness, it felt like one was receiving a spell.
“THANK YOU PETER BROOK FOR EVERYTHING. I can die peacefully thinking I have had you in the audience. You made many lives like mine special with your work and encouragement and humility. Rest in Shakespeare !”
Billington penned his own short tribute, saying how the director always possessed a “boundless curiosity”.
Pre-eminent Indian violinist Dr L Subramaniam remembered: “Very sad to hear about the demise of my dear friend Peter Brook. Many great memories come back to me from the collaboration for the historical theatre production of Mahabharata. The world has lost of one its most creative artists.”
Well-known Indian actor Kabir Bedi also expressed how inspired he had been by Brook.
“BLOWN AWAY when I saw Peter Brook’s 9-hour long ‘The Mahabharata’ – in 3 sessions of 3 hours – performed in a Los Angeles studio, spectators on raised chairs, decades ago. Mallika Sarabhai was brilliant as Draupaudi.
“I salute Peter Brook’s monumental life in theatre.”
Among the other Indians paying tribute too was actor Adil Hussain and cultural commentator and Indian censor board member, Vani Tripathi Tikoo.
Brook was born in Chiswick, west London to Jewish émigré parents of Russian origin and was privately educated before going to Oxford University to read languages. It was there that he developed a passion for theatre and first directed ‘Dr Faustus’ in 1943 in London.
He also directed several films including the seminal, ‘Lord of the Flies‘ (1963).
Brook married the actor Natasha Parry in 1951. She died in 2015 and Brook is survived by his two children, Irina, an actor and Simon, a film director. He tweeted his own loving tribute. https://twitter.com/simoninferno/status/1543566149115330563
Peter Brook, theatre director, artist 1925 – July 2 2022.
Adil Hussain – https://twitter.com/_AdilHussain/status/1543574154544263168
Vani Tripathi Tikoo – https://twitter.com/vanityparty/status/1543638010184421377
Tara Arts – http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/relief-over-rescue-funds-for-culture-sector-former-tara-arts-artistic-director-jatinder-verma-mbe-welcomes-but-says-scheme-must-be-simple-and-help-freelances/