The Wednesday Play: The Mahabharata (1989)

Le Mahabharata

Right now, you may have noticed, there’s a whole load of religions about to have some sort of festival or other. So to avoid all hint of bias, this week’s Wednesday Play has nothing to do with any of them and is purely of concern to Hindus – none of whom are celebrating anything right now, except maybe a birthday or two.

Peter Brook CH, CBE is one of the world’s most famous and justifiably lauded theatre directors. His career in both theatre and film has spanned decades, stretching back with the RSC to 1950 all the way through to the present day. Perhaps his most famous work, however, was a 1985 production that he had co-written over eight years with Jean-Claude Carrière and Marie-Hélène Estienne: The Mahabharata. An astonishing nine hours long, it was nevertheless a distillation in itself of the world’s longest and perhaps even most important work of epic poetry, the eponymous 200,000-line long Sanskrit text Mahabharata.

Regarded by Hindus as both a text about Hindu moral law (dharma) and its history, the poem dates back to 400BC and is perhaps as early in origin as 9th century BC. Its main plot is about the struggle between two branches of a single family – the Kaurava and the Pandava – for the throne of Hastinapura, which eventually culminates in the battle of Kurkshetra, but the majority of the work includes a wide range of other myths and legends.

Brook regarded the Mahabharata as a text of the world, so for his production, he chose a cast from countries all round the world, including Georges Corraface, Vittoria Mezzogiorno, Mamdou Dioumé and Yoshi Oida. After the production premiered at the 39th Avignon festival, Brook was to take it on a world tour for four years and at the end of that period, an abridged version a mere six hours long was filmed and shown as a two-part mini-series on Channel 4 in the UK. This was subsequently cut down to three hours for a cinema and DVD release.

Many of the cast of the stage production were to return for the mini-series, including Corraface, Mezzogiorno, Dioumé and Oida; however, in true RSC fashion, as well as some new cast members such as Ciarán Hinds, some of the original cast took on different roles, with Bruce Myers switching from Karna to become both Ganesha and Krishna, Andrzej Seweryn moving from Duryodhana to Yudhishthira and Maurice Bénichou switching from Ganesha and Krishna to Kitchaka, to name but a few.

It’s an epic in all senses and a very theatrical one at that, but if you have the time – perhaps over Christmas – you can watch all six hours of the mini-series below or you can get it on DVD. It’s definitely worth the effort.

Other versions
It’s worth noting that Brook was not the first to adapt the Mahabharata, even if he was the first to adapt it in English. Because there was a film made in 1963 of just one story of the Mahabharata, Narthanasala, which again you can watch below, although your Telugu had better be good since it’s not subtitled.

A 1965 film, however, made an attempt at adapting the full story in just two and a half hours, and this is subtitled, if you want to give it a go, you may be glad to hear.

As well as a 2013 film, this time 3D and animated, there have also been four Indian TV series (1988, 1997, 2008 and 2013). The earliest of these series was produced by famed Indian film director BR Chopra and despite being 94 episodes long and taking nearly two years to air, was one of the most successful programmes in Indian TV history. It was subsequently imported to the UK by BBC2.

The 2013 series, Mahabharat was equally well viewed but had a somewhat larger budget, being the most expensive series in Indian TV history.

It seems this epic has legs…