Earlier this year I saw Peter Brook's Mahabharata for the third time in fifteen years. Each time my admiration for it has grown. I consider it one of the greatest dramatic productions of all time. Its notable lack of appeal to Indians, except to a sliver, may be because it is in English and stars mostly non-Indian actors (including, heaven forbid, some black Africans in major roles!), not to mention that it treats the epic simply as a great work of literature, without the cloying religiosity that has informed most Indian dramatizations (with predictable "box-office" success).
The multinational, multi-racial cast from a dozen countries works brilliantly, driving home the universality of the Mahabharata. The script brings out some of its best philosophical nuances and existential dilemmas. Costumes are tasteful, music score hauntingly beautiful, dialog taut and poetic. Battle scenes are creatively shown, like the Chakravyuh that traps Abhimanyu.
One thing I noticed more this time -- which you won't find in popular Indian renditions -- is Krishna's ambivalent role in the story (he's not "cute" either). Nor is he above cheating and murderous advice (for e.g., to kill Karna, to hit Duryodhana's thigh, sacrificing Bhima's son). The conclusion is inescapable: even the Creator is flawed, much like His creation. In the end, with the catastrophic destruction of the war, we wonder if Arjuna's doubts were any less profound than Krishna's "divine truth". Was it all worth it? Should one aspire to act without attachment to the fruit of the action? A perfectly defensible interpretation is that Krishna brainwashes Arjuna into "understanding" his duty (or dharma), after which the great warrior exhibits no further doubts -- hardly a desirable state.
In this production, Bhishma is wonderfully quirky and stubborn, with some memorable lines to boot, all delivered in a charming Malian accent ("I abjure forever the love of woman"; "I am troubled. The question is obscure."). Kunti imparts a fitting gravity to her role. Duryodhana is extraordinary, weaving in the right mix of lust for life and power ("Birth is obscure and men are like rivers whose origins are often unknown"). Mama Shakuni is consummately crafty. Bhima is well cast: loud, brawny, and impetuous. Karna is suitably intense and conflicted, though he appears to have done a few too many Shakespearean tragedies before this role. Yudhisthira is an introspective man of truth with a debilitating blind spot. The greatest wonder of all, he observes, is that each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal. Draupadi comes across as willful, submissive yet strong, driven by her public humiliation to hardness and gory revenge.
Brook's device of bringing in Vyasa and his scribe, Ganesha, into the story works well. Vyasa doubts, ponders, clarifies, which, by revealing the creative process in his mind, also serves to diffuse the authority of the narrative voice. Even at nearly six hours, this is one show I've watched in a single sitting all three times. I only wish it was twelve hours long!
In my two-part essay, Bhagavad Gita Revisited (Part 1, Part 2), I argue that the Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core. Part 1 is on the Gita’s historical and literary context, Part 2 is the textual critique. There is also an addendum.