Sean O’Callaghan embodies the universality of Battlefield

Directed by Peter Brook, Battlefield encourages the public to think about universal values. Actor Sean O’Callaghan plays with a multicultural cast. Thanks to a few props and a meaningful text adapted from Mahabharata he enthralls the audience at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.

Battlefield: the importance of reconciliation. Photo credit © Simon Annad

Trained as an actor at RADA, Sean O’Callaghan has always wanted to become an actor. Recently, he had the chance to meet Peter Brook who offered him a part in his most recent play. Battlefield is another version of an already existing play presented by Brook at Festival d’Avignon in 1985. Adapted from Mahabharata, the play tells the story of an Indian war that started between two families. A tragic battle in which millions of people were killed and the man who won had to reign over the living. According to Michael Kustow, Mahabharata is the basis of Indian thought and the origin of their deepest moral philosophy. But as Brook says, this work does not belong to Indians only, it is for the all humankind.

Michael Kustow: (1939 – 2014) writer and producer

Book : Peter Brook: Une Biographie

Peter Brook’s show encourages the audience to ask key questions: Indeed, Battlefield is about universality. The script, the actors, the acting, the props and the place, all contribute.

Invisible made visible

A timeless and spaceless text is essential for a universal show.  Battlefield is like Mahabharata, a new vocabulary and another way to maintain our difficult relationship with the world, says Jean-Claude Carrière who wrote the French version. “we create a work that only India could have created but whose echoes are everywhere perceptible,” Brook points.

Jean-Claude Carrière: Novelist, screenwriter, actor and director

Book: “Le Mahabharata

Using performance, Brook transforms the text into an outstanding show. He attracts the public’s attention and then lets them interpret the story. Peter Brook in his book The Empty Space, calls theatre the “invisible made visible.” The stage becomes a place where  what’s going on today in the world can be presented. The purpose of Battlefield is clear to everyone starting from the actors. “I think the message is something that was there from the beginning.” O’Callaghan says. The show raises questions about “justice, the mortality of life, the value of life, and how we see ourselves. And then it provokes the public to think about different ideas,” Sean O’Callaghan adds. “We, as actors, have to present this play without obstructing those ideas”, he states. For the actors it’s not an easy task to do: “It is a very particular way of working and to me it’s interesting but it represents a challenge at the same time,” the artist continues.

Sticks, armchairs and the Bouffes

Using only a few props on stage, the actors succeed in maintaining the play’s message. Three wooden armchairs and two sticks, as a symbol of wisdom, are enough for the artists to make the stage a battlefield. The costume design is also simple and reflects a culture of ancient history.

Uncluttered with props, the performances of  Battlefield actors are also heightened because the theatrical place functions both as a decoration and as a building. Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord is a place of concentration which exalts the body and puts together simplicity and beauty. According to Peter Brook’s expert Georges Banu, “Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord has an exemplary value for Brook’s aesthetics because the place reflects the past. But by the use made of it, it never appears nostalgic”.

George Banu : French critic

Books:  Peter Brook: De Timon à Hamlet 

                Peter Brook: vers un téâtre premier

This sublime space indeed inspires a great admiration for the audience since Brook discovered it. Peter Brook does not project an ideal place but reveals a hidden place. As George Banu says about Peter Brook, “the English producer appropriates the theatre space and makes it his own without affixing his signature”.

Four origins, one concern

Specific casting decisions support the vision of a tale addressing the whole of the humankind. Four actors from different origins “When we have Rwandan, Belgian, American, Irish actors, and a Japanese musician, that immediately makes it universal,” O’Callaghan claims. It’s important because the subject concerns all the societies that they are representing. “The responsibility of not going to war,” the actor says, « is a universal issue that we see on the screens daily because it is one of the main subjects in the media. Things that we hear and see in our everyday life are about responsibility and reconciliation. »

Sean O’Callaghan, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba and Carole Karemera in rehearsal for Battlefield. Photo credit © Bertrand Guay

Parables emphasize the topicality of the play. Like when the mongoose tries to cover itself with gold and then the man pretends to give the gold to the poor. This symbolic situation represents actual economic situations. According to O’Callaghan “what happens is that politicians say, for instance, we will give these million pounds to a poor country, but they spend this money in the country to buy the fruit to be taken to their countries. So actually money comes straight back to their pockets.” This and other scenes reflect what happens nowadays in the world. Powerful ideas and meanings are present in Battlefield. “This victory is a defeat” says Yudishtira (Jared McNeill) in the play. Sean O’Callaghan thinks that “any victory is a defeat, because in order to win you have to destroy, and in destroying there is a defeat.

A Life on Stage

Before triumphing in Battlefield, Sean O’Callaghan had spent several years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  then did many works with Howard Barker. “Working with Brook is a major moment in my career,” claims the actor.

Image by Eoin Harvey
Sean O’Callaghan in Faith Healer. Photo credit © Eoin Harvey

Certainly, Peter Brook produced ground-breaking works that remain exceptional. He is the one who reveals the essence of theatre and gives it another dimension.

Seeing Battlefield is really an interesting experience even for someone who does not know a lot about theatre. We feel that the performance and the words are meaningful and carefully chosen.  After the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris,  Battlefield will address the same universal issues in front of other audiences across the world: Singapore, then London, Sydney and Tokyo.

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