Flawed Review Yields Unexpected Insights

I am pleasantly surprised that my review of Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabharata, is cited in an essay contained in The Methuen Drama Handbook of Interculturalism and Performance (2020).

Initially, I was slightly confused as to why my review was cited, especially when I was a novice back then, and have provided links to reviews written by reviewers from mainstream publications. While I did not have access to the full essay, I was amused to find out that Dr Tan is a Singaporean theatre academic, and his concerns in the essay is about sound design. That is certainly not my forte and my review did not cover sound design at all.

Upon closer reading of the excerpt and my review, I realised that my review detailed four reactions by different audience members, and it served as an indication of the audience members’ reactions to the performance. Hence, it allowed Dr Tan to cite that as anecdotal evidence that the audience was “uninspired and bored”.

At the time of writing, I knew that the review would ruffle many feathers had it gained a wider readership. It was a special review to me because I uncharacteristically privileged reportage over anything else.

Personally, I am not in favour of providing too much reportage. It spoils the show for those who are about to watch it, and it takes the space away from wider analysis, which differentiates one critic from another. Reportage should be in the form of examples to substantiate a wider point.

In that review, I made such a deliberate but uncharacteristic choice in response to the widespread adoration of the show, which seemed to be earned due to Brook’s reputation rather than the direction or performance itself.

I wanted to show that the drama in the stalls is much more interesting that what was happening on stage. And I have used this technique several times since.

That said, if I were to receive that review now, I would still stand by the writer’s decision, but advise him to add a little more context and details of the show.

At that time, I was quite a stickler for keeping to the word count as I believed that most people would not read beyond 500 words. While I am still of that opinion to a large extent, a clear and exciting review would put the readers in a forgiving mood.

[Theatre Review] Brook Makes Audience Battle Boredom

Battlefield

Battlefield
Peter Brook & Singapore Repertory Theatre
21 November 2015, 3 pm
Capitol Theatre
17–21 November 2015

I do not need to offer a synopsis of Battlefield for the story from Mahabharata should be somewhat familiar to most people. More importantly, the tales and parables are intimated so subtly that it could have been any other generic story.

Brook returns to story-telling traditions as the action—or lack thereof—takes place on a largely bare stage. Characters are indicated by the cloth they wear around their necks and the story is told through words, symbolic actions and manoeuvring of various cloths. However, the thousands of deaths and the struggles of the king are neither indicated by the expressions of the actors (Carole Karemera, Jared Mcneill, Ery Nazaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan) or the timbre of their voices.

Rather than bore you with details of this lacklustre performance, allow me to entertain you with a description of the drama that unfolded around me.

A bout of snoring from the left flank of the theatre marks the thirty-fifth minute of the show. I look to the left and about six to ten seats away from me, there is a man fast asleep as he reclines in his seat. Every few minutes, there is an intermittent pause in the snoring as he tries to find a more comfortable position to snooze in.

On four or five occasions, I hear the rustling of a plastic bag directly behind me. I am inclined to turn around to see what is in the plastic bag but I do not want to embarrass the person. While I am usually irritated by such nuisance, I only have the deepest of sympathies for my fellow audience member.

At the forty-five minute mark, a young man four seats to my left starts to get restless. Yielding to temptation, he rips open his bag that is fastened by Velcro and risks incurring the wrath of his fellow audience members. Nobody bats an eyelid. He takes out the programme, places it on his lap and starts flipping it in search of enlightenment or anything that would kill time.

Stepping out of the theatre, an Indian woman complains to the front-of-house about not being able to hear the actors. As I walk out of the lobby, a voice trails behind.

“Excuse me!” I turn around and it is the same Indian lady. “Did you just watch the Mahabharata?”

“Yes.”

“Were you sitting in the circle?”

“No… I was seated towards the back of the stalls.”

“Cannot hear the actors right?” I nodded in agreement.

“I mean sometimes they never pronounce their words clearly… but when they do, you could hardly hear it… very bad.”

“Yah.” I watch her walk off. She shakes her head in disappointment and points her finger forward either to emphasise her frustration to herself or perhaps to admonish an imaginary Peter Brook.

Unlike my colleague from The Straits Times, I shall not make excuses for the show as I can only report my experience. One may write all the books in the world but if the production does not reach out to the audience, it is a colossal failure.

Rather than get caught up with the glimmer of Brook’s halo, we should demand more from this experienced artist.

Other Reviews

“Art of story-telling at its finest in Peter Brook’s Battlefield” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Theatre Review: Battlefield by Mayo Martin, Today

“Theatre Review: Peter Brook’s Battlefield” by Alex Tham, Buro 24/7

“Singapore Repertory Theatre Presents: Battlefield by Peter Brook” by Nithia Devan, City Nomads

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Battlefield’ by Peter Brook” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, Blog Critics

Battlefield—An Indulgence of Ideas [Review]” by Seewah Ho, What’s Next

“The Final Scene from the Mahabharata by Imp (alias), Faerie Tales