Battlefield (Young Vic)

Peter Brook returns to the ”Mahabharata” for new play, ”Battlefield”

Thirty years ago, in vast stone quarry outside Avignon, Peter Brook staged his legendary production of the Mahabharata. Nine hours long, with a cast of 21, it took a running jump at the longest poem ever written, all 1.8 million words of it – roughly equivalent to ten Illiads and ten Odysseys combined.

Now 90, Brook has since turned minimalist. In returning to the Sanskrit epic, he and his long-term collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne zoom in on a small selection of its stories – fables really – to pose a series of unanswerable, perennial problems.

At just 65 minutes long, Battlefield asks some of the most essential questions of human existence. Why do we cling to life when death is inevitable? Why is peace so persistently out of reach? Ditto justice and equality? And if these abstract ideals are impossible, why do we continue to strive for them? Battlefield offers no answers – how could it – but it's enough to air these imponderables.

It is a piece shot through with death – not least because it situates itself on a battlefield strewn with bodies, millions of them, in the aftermath of a war between rival family factions. It's left to the victor, Yudhishthira, to make sense of it all, of the losses and gains. His fate might have been different. His enemies had their cause and their conviction; they weren't purely evil, nor his purely good. He seeks meaning in stories.

The paradox of Peter Brook is that it takes great skill to do something so straightforward; so straightforward, in fact, that it can look simplistic. On a bare stage, a carpet of burnt ochre that brings a sense of the desert into the Young Vic, four actors step into these parables. As ever with Brook, the actors' precision and purpose carries its own meaning. Carole Karemera just has to crick her neck to play a pigeon on the scales of justice; inching across the stage, Sean O'Callaghan is every bit a worm crossing a road, as a cartwheel approaches. Brook does the bare minimum. His stagecraft allows him to speak plainly.

Take the parable of the rich man and the mongoose, who badgers him to give his possessions over to the poor. Jared McNeill unwinds several coloured scarves and hands them over, charging the mongoose to distribute them fairly, until Ery Nzaramba stands there, weighed down. He turns to us: "Are you poor?" When someone acquiesces, he simply offloads the lot into their lap. So the world turns.

There's a danger this seems resigned, not merely reflective, but with Brook, theatre's a communal activity. Toshi Tsuchitori's traditional Japanese drumming activates the air. You're absolutely aware of those watching alongside you and the responsibility we share for the world. Yet, Battlefield invites personal reflection and it's on each of us to find wisdom and weight in stories that can seem childish and slight. It's an intensely theatrical experience – albeit a self-contained one.

Battlefield runs at the Young Vic until 27 February.