As theater legends go, London-bred director Peter Brook is in a league by himself.
His career began in 1943, when he staged “Dr. Faustus” while Britain was under Nazi bombardment. Over the decades, he has directed a raft of acclaimed works, including a nine-hour stage adaptation of the classic Indian epic poem the “Mahabharata.”
Now 92, Brook revisits that epic in his latest show, “Battlefield,” a 70-minute excerpted version that begins a two-week run Thursday in Minneapolis on the Guthrie Theater’s proscenium stage.
Brook will travel to the Twin Cities from Paris, where he has lived for more than 40 years and is still making work at his home space, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said last week by phone. “Tyrone Guthrie was a friend of mine and a deep inspiration. When people were doing solid, middle-class, complacent theater, he showed that it could be passionate and full of life and color. He was a vivifier and awakener.”
Q: By your own standards, “Battlefield” seems like a chamber piece.
A: Well, I’m afraid that the [nine-hour] version of the “Mahabharata” that we did was a shortened one. The full “Mahabharata” would’ve been about three weeks long. [He laughed.]
Q: How did you and collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne come to revisit it?
A: The world is on the move at the most extraordinary speed. That is the defining characteristic of our time. We have more information, more changes and more dangers than at any time in history. And when Marie-Hélène, who is inseparably close to me and to this work, and I were looking at a section of the “Mahabharata” a couple of years ago, we saw this one fragment that’s incredibly close to the world we live in.
Q: I read that you looked, sadly, on the Syrian conflict as a source of inspiration.
A: Well, wherever we go, the moment people hear the word “battlefield,” something wakes up in them. All the stories of the “Mahabharata” naturally lead you to the great battle that causes a family to break up and leads to this terrifying war of extermination. It could be Syria. But it could be another place that’s churning around us.
Q: Is it fairly easy for you to relate this ancient text to contemporary context?
A: Yes. When you’re doing this work, you certainly don’t try to behave like a professor preparing to teach students something. You try to be more and more open to listening.
Q: In “The Persians,” Aeschylus gave us the perspective of the vanquished. In “Battlefield,” you’re giving us the burdens of the victors.
A: Years ago, we did a film on the Vietnam War called “Tell Me Lies.” People again feel that this film is about today. There are tendencies that recur, that we need to be reminded of. To win, be it a war or an election, carries an awesome responsibility. What are we going to do now? Where do we go from here?
Q: You work in theater, opera and cinema, often marrying elements of all three in each discipline. Do you prefer one over another?
A: Film, theater, opera — these are tools. A well-told story, a well-told account, is all we’re after. But one of the great things about the theater is that you can do different things that don’t cost too much money. You have complete freedom. If you’re doing a big show on Broadway, for example, and you have your producer there sitting in the rehearsal room, terrified about losing their shirt, you become a prisoner of a system. It’s folly to do a big expensive production if it’s not necessary. We traveled to Africa and India to see how storytellers evoke complex worlds in the simplest of ways. And that’s what we do here.
Q: With a chorus of storytellers.
A: It’s become a cliché for our actors. We are constantly telling them that they are one storyteller with many heads and many bodies. They are one central figure.
Q: You have immersed yourself in this great Indian text about long-simmering war and conflict.
A: It’s on the order of “The Odyssey” or the Bible.
Q: What’s the instruction there?
A: It’s not for me to push anything, any point of view or agenda, but to make things sufficiently alive and present [for the audience]. With this particular piece, which we’re taking all over the world, people feel it urgently, which, I suppose, is a comment on our condition as human beings.