Young Vic

Review: Battlefield ★★★★ – Peter Brook returns to the Mahabharata with a meditation on the aftermath of war that will stay with audiences

Battlefield at the Young Vic, Sean O'Callaghan, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, Carole Karemera and Toshi Tsuchitori © Simon Annand Thirty years ago, the great and influential Jewish theatre practitioner Peter Brook worked with writer Jean-Claude Carriere and a large cast from the company who had gathered around him in Paris to dramatise The Mahabharata: the Sanskrit epic of the mighty Bharata family torn apart by a great war. The result was nine hours of mesmerising epic theatre, which I was fortunate enough to see in a Glasgow tramshed transformed by red earth into the Indian subcontinent. Now aged 90, working with his long-term collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, he returns to just one section of the mighty epic, which they've called Battlefield.

This meditation on the sorrow and pity of war, eloquent and moving in its extraordinary simplicity, is sadly both timely and timeless as we continue to commemorate two World Wars, while the world is ripped apart and whole peoples put to flight by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. Battlefield is about the aftermath of war and especially internecine struggle within dynasties, here two great families, the Pandavas and Kauravas. The five Pandava brothers may have triumphed over their cousins the hundred sons of the blind King Dritarashtra, but for Yudishtira, oldest of the Pandavas who must now become king, it is a Pyrrhic victory. He has lost so much and so many family members and confederates lie dead on the field of battle. So he finds he has all too much in common with the old blind King he has defeated.

And so many themes and threads in this story sound as familiar as the weekly Torah portions and Haftorah readings you can hear in synagogues around the world every Shabbat. For David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan, “The beauty of Israel is slain among thy high places,” and his later raw cry over the death of his traitor son Absalom, “Oh, Absalom, Absalom, my son…” resonate with the anguish of these survivors of battle, both victor and vanquished. There is even the story of a baby pulled from a river where his mother has abandoned him floating in a basket. His rescuers are princely and he grows up to be the mighty warrior Karna.

The glory of this production, little more than an hour long, is its stunning simplicity. It is performed on a thrust stage, again covered by that orange-red dust, by four powerful performers – at the same time physical and cerebral – who morph sinuously from one role to another as necessary. Nobody is credited with the simple design, but Oria Puppo’s streamlined costumes, echoing that theme of the modern and timeless, are enhanced by huge bolts of red and orange cloth to wonderful effect, serving as robes and cloaks, rivers, the elements of fire and earth, storms and even untold riches. Philippe Vialatte’s mood-making lighting too seems like an extra character. And the whole is brilliantly underscored and orchestrated by the drumming of master musician Toshi Tsuchitori, whose rhythms eloquently enhance and alter the mood and pace.

Battlefield at the Young Vic, Carole Karemera and Jared McNeill © Simon Annand

Stories are folded within stories, and amidst that sorrow and pity there are plenty of flashes of humour, albeit dark or rueful. Each performer is singular and all work wonderfully together. Sean O’Callaghan is a huge and imposing presence, especially moving as the blind and bereaved King Dritarashtra, but ruefully comical as a worm in danger of being crushed. To Jared McNeill falls the role of the victorious Yudishtira, as graceful – and abashed – in victory, as the vanquished old King he has toppled. While Ery Nzaramba is both funny and authoritative as the wise men whose advice to the king comes in the form of those parables about a succession of animals including that worm, as well as a pigeon and a mongoose.

Stately Carole Karemera (who plays the pigeon with comic economy) is as capable of huge dignity as the queenly women caught up in the struggle, principally Yudishtira’s mother Kunti, but it is her heartrending Ganga, her terrifying cry of grief and loss at the death of her son that I shall long remember – standing for every bereaved mother indeed.

“For an idea to stick it must be burnt into our memories,” says Brook in his hugely influential meditation on theatre, The Empty Space. The singularly funny and thought-provoking tale of a king who offers more and more of his body to be weighed in the scales against that pigeon till every bone is part of the weigh-in proves to be a telling and memorable metaphor. And then one of the wise men has a parable for the new King in which a mongoose tells a rich man to give away all his riches to the poor. He begins to involve the audience, homing in on various members asking if they are rich or poor. Some fess up to being rich, others assert they are poor and are ‘rewarded’ with some of those red and orange cloths. The last of these ‘lucky’ recipients finds his lap piled so high he cannot move and can barely applaud at the end. It is the image of this discomfiture, which so perfectly embodies the ambiguity of riches – and indeed victory – that sticks in my memory. The storytelling of Brook and Estienne accrues power even as they continue to strip it bare to the bone.

By Judi Herman

Battlefield runs until Saturday 27 February, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £10-£35, at Young Vic Theatre, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ; 020 7922 2922.

Review: The Trial – Judi Herman finds this updated Kafka fable suitably unsettling

Rory Kinnear as Josef K in The Trial at Young Vic, London © Keith Pattison© Keith Pattison

Franz Kafka's 1915 novella has always seemed uncannily prescient, first of life in Nazi-occupied Europe, then in the post-war Communist era. Now it assumes a whole new chilling significance in a 21st century full of mass media scrutiny, social media, online surveillance and CCTV.

Joseph K (played by Rory Kinnear) finds himself on trial for an unspecified crime. He is informed he is under arrest after a rude awakening by a pair of court officials who make off with some of his personal effects. At first it hardly affects his daily life and work, but soon righteous indignation gives way to frustration at not being able to get across his case and how it is progressing through seemingly unending layers of bureaucracy. So obsessive paranoia kicks in, fuelled by an uneasy sense of unspecified guilt, as events move inexorably – and not without a grim quirky humour – towards a dark conclusion.

The fable has proved attractive to theatre practitioners, including, notably, Steven Berkoff and now it has attracted the attention of playwright Nick Gill and director Richard Jones, himself no slouch in the staging of the dark and quirky. Together with designer Miriam Buether, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin and composer and sound designer David Sawer (sound also by Alex Twiselton), they have come up with a version that reflects the Kafkaesque in the era of Facebook and Twitter exactly one hundred years after Kafka wrote it.

Jones’s hugely accomplished and dedicated cast, led by Kinnear, skilfully negotiate Buether’s highly original conveyor belt set, moving between two banks of seating, casting the audience as jurors, and delivering rooms and offices as required. There’s something voyeuristic too about peering at these rooms furnished with coffee tables of family photographs, which also sits well with the paranoia. Best of all is that Kinnear’s increasingly-perspiring Joseph succumbs first gradually, and then faster and faster, to guilty feelings as he delves back through his life; starting with preschool toddler days, finding reasons to be guilty that would have done Sigmund Freud proud.

Kinnear gives an extraordinary performance, hugely intelligent and as open as a wound. Kate O’Flynn is wonderfully versatile as the young women and girls in this stage of Joseph’s life, from the what-you-see-is-what-you-get barmaid, who is everything from the girl next door, to sexy temptress and demanding adolescent. Sian Thomas shines in a terrific pair of turns as the stridently ineffective lawyer from hell and a scarily smooth doctor, and Hugh Skinner (the useless intern from TV comedy W1A) relishes two contrasting roles as a dangerously aspirational Number Two at Joseph K’s office and a terrifying example of what might be in store for K as an accused man almost at the end of the process on which he has inexorably been set. The rest of the cast are equally superb, working especially well in various incarnations of a sinister ensemble. Sarah Fahie's movement direction enhances their shifting stage pictures, raising the threat level exponentially as the conveyor belt rolls by.

Gill’s update mostly works a treat (or should that be a threat!). My only quibble is with the semaphore babble of K’s internal monologues, where verbs become imperatives with which he addresses himself, sentences and phrases lose the odd word and words lose the odd letter – "and" for example becoming "an". To quote the opening lines: “An almost woke ee up one morn – like baby innocent an bold, the great white hole, lord of all surveys, unslandered, clear of mind an hurt, future ahead an ee all indestructible – Josef K.”

These soliloquies are interestingly idiosyncratic, but they are more jarring than arresting (pun unintended).

By Judi Herman

The Trial runs until Saturday 22 August. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £10-£35, £10 concs. Young Vic Theatre, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ; 020 7922 2922.

Review: A View from the Bridge – Ivo van Hove's moving and powerful production of Arthur Miller's shattering drama

the view from the bridge 2015 © Jan Versweyveld It’s hard to imagine a more powerful – or more iconoclastic – production of Arthur Miller’s shattering meditation on family relationships gone bad and immigrants trying to make good in 1950s New York. But director Ivo van Hove comes close.

I use the word iconoclastic because more conventional productions evoke that specific 1950s setting, although they are using the specific to also evoke the general. In van Hove’s stripped down production – on designer Jan Versweyveld’s rectangular arena – the events of the play are as if under a microscope, focused by Michael Gould’s fine portrayal of lawyer/Greek Chorus Alfieri so that we the audience may observe them with growing incredulity and horror. There is an eerie timeless quality to this setting, which throws into relief the contemporary resonances of the illegal immigrants’ plight and desperation all too clearly.

Italian-American made good protagonist, Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong), reluctantly takes in his wife Beatrice’s (Nicola Walker) relatives from Sicily. Working men have been driven to leave their wives and families for years at a time because of a lack of work in the depression on their island. These illegal immigrants live with the fear of being discovered, though "shopping" your countrymen to the police is likely to bring down a worse fate on the whistle-blower. The search for a better life, the willingness to work all hours, to face up to separation from loved ones and to the pain of longing for them, applies to the Jews who made their painful way from the pogroms and persecution of Europe and to successive generations of economic migrants from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas as much as to these Italians.

view from the bridge 2015, scrum, © Jan Versweyveld

As it becomes apparent that the close affectionate relationship between Eddie and Catherine (Phoebe Fox), the niece he has raised as his daughter after his wife’s sister’s death is much too close for comfort on his part, and his affection becomes aggressively possessive and even abusive. Again the play becomes chillingly timely – and timeless. His not so latent homophobia, accusing the newly-arrived Rodolpho (Luke Norris) of being a pretty-boy homosexual is certainly of its time, yet still contemporary.

view from the bridge 2015, fight, © Jan Versweyveld

Timeless though the play and production may be, the actors manage to vividly evoke the 1950s, even in the plainest of costumes (by An d’Huys) and barefoot too. You can visualise Strong’s powerful Eddie working on the docks as a longshoreman, then at home as a terrifyingly insistent and intense character. He does not care who sympathises with him; yet the audience watches his self-destruction with horrified incredulity, channelled by Alfieri’s own impotence to reason with this man so out of control.

Catherine is performed vibrantly by Fox, who sets the stage aglow; first leaping into her uncle’s arms, shining with excitement about her first job, and then glowering with determination and anger as he places obstacles in her path to marriage with her young immigrant lover. Equally Walker as Beatrice conveys vividly and heartbreakingly her disappointment and discomfiture in the face of her now sexless marriage and the reason for her husband’s neglect, but also the magnificent warmth of a Sicilian matriarch, with so much to offer her husband and niece – and indeed her needy newly-arrived relatives.

view from the bridge 2015, close-up, © Jan Versweyveld

Norris is perfectly cast as the pretty blonde Rodolpho, his different and delicate good looks and sensitivity making it plausible not only that he is the object of Catherine’s affections but also Eddie’s hatred. Emun Elliott’s dark, more conventionally Mediterranean Marco is touching in his longing for home and family and determination to make good so far away from them and equally plausible in his own fiery reaction to Eddie’s actions.

My only cavil with the power and intensity of this two-hour (no interval) play is in the insistent soundtrack throughout and a visceral coup de theatre at the end. Neither increase the power or intensity as both are fuelled by the extraordinary ensemble acting acting out Miller’s shattering story. I’d like to think the audience, who rose to their feet almost as one at the end, would have given them a standing ovation even without this final stage effect.

By Judi Herman, who saw the production at the Young Vic before it transferred to the West End.

The View from the Bridge runs until 11 April. 7.45pm, 2.45pm (Wed/Sat only). £19.50-£62.50. Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0DA; 084 4482 5120.