In defense of slowing down: Peter Brook’s ‘Battlefield’

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There isn’t much action (in the action movie sense) in a Peter Brook play.

“Battlefield,”  which played at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills last week, was no exception. True to form the show was terribly simple: four actors, a drummer, and a mostly bare stage. The piece opens at the end of a great battle. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men have been killed. We see none of this. No flashy battle scenes or choreography. Instead, we’re confronted with a more profound battle, the one that happens after victory, or defeat, when one must lead.

The protagonist is reluctant to assume the reins of power. He’s young and searches out advice from his elders: his mother, his assumed father, a great elder. All counsel him with stories, allegories that provide little in the way of direct answers. Stories that revolve around around being a leader and accepting death in all its challenging forms. It’s frustrating if what you’re hoping is that the path forward is clear…or quick…or direct: action. This is more like asking for directions in a small town to the nearest gas station and getting not a turn by turn condensation but instead a tale of local history and lore (“well, see that house there.  Bill Simmons used to live there. Died years ago. Nice fella. Any case, you take a left there…).

Our technological world has little use for these stories and yet there’s a profound need for them. They are the dramas about everything you can’t google.

Two years ago before his show “Desdemona,” Peter Sellars spoke of just these dramas and the challenge of hearing them.  

“Desdemona,” created with his collaborators Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré, imagines the story of “Othello” through the eyes of Desdemona and an imagined African caretaker, based on a single Shakespearean line – “My mother had a maid called Barbary.”  Mr. Sellars imagines how an African voice might change how we understand the story of the Moor and his wife. The resulting work was profound and meditative, again with deliberatively little action. 

Before the show, Mr. Sellars grinned mischievously and confided, “It’s a tough show. It’s a real challenge for audiences because it asks them to slow down. The whole first part is just about slowing down time for the audience so they can really hear it.”

He was right. It was tough. It asked an audience to let go of their urgent time and instead embrace a slower, more ancient metronome – one not constrained to 140 characters of short attention. You could feel the audience struggle, become restless, become bored… and then, perhaps out of desperation, really listen.

Peter Brook doesn’t make theater for everyone. After all, the question lurking at the heart of these works is a challenge to confront the great stillness – death. In “The Battlefield” everyone is confronting death, either their own or the death of someone they treasure. The message, if such a beautiful and complicated play could be reduced to something as trite as a “message” is that we must accept it. The elders, when their moment has come, recede into the forest and prepare for the end.

Mr. Brooks work has already left The Wallis; it was only here for a single weekend. I hope for the theater’s sake there is more work before he makes his journey, after 92 years as a leader of the theater, into his own forest.

We need more work like this, more chances to slow down and listen.