The most satisfying endings to great mythic narratives are those which convey a sense that the stewardship of the world has willingly been passed on from those in the stories to those hearing them. Be it the foundation of Athens at the end of (one version of) the saga of the house of Atreus, or Sam Gamgee returning from seeing his Lord Of The Rings comrades sailing into the west, this combination of closure and continuance seems to chime deeply with us: we cannot pass the buck to heroes, we must instead accept the obligation to uphold their values ourselves.
The segment of the Mahabharata now dramatised as La Mort de Krishna partakes of this spirit. It constitutes one of "some 50 different endings" to the poem, according to director Peter Brook, but strikes a chord because of "Krishna voluntarily recognising that it's time to die." Indeed, we get two for the price of one, as Krishna's own acceptance of death is foreshadowed by that of his devotee, the ascetic Utanka.
The production, too, is a kind of coda to Brook's Mahabharata: its text is again by Jean-Claude Carrière and Marie-Hélène Estienne, and it is performed by Maurice Bénichou, Brook's erstwhile Krishna. Its staging shows the trademark simplicity: some lamps, some cushions and a bust of Ganesh create a space in which the ritual aspects of storytelling can reverberate, but the telling itself is unfussy. Bénichou conveys the emotion in characters' speeches, but never fully goes into character; he remains the narrator, speaking so intimately that sometimes he drops to the very threshold of audibility. Similarly, when he adds comic touches to his account of a grotesque hunter or a cannibal king (he's very good at a kind of guttural glossolalia), this never detracts from the central focus of the story either.
There's the motif, too, that time seems always to bring a diminution in the nature of things. (The last words of the 65-minute piece are the warrior Arjuna lamenting wearily, "Time, time...") This, following hard on the heels of calamitously destructive battles in which even the noblest are unable to do anything but slaughter all around them, may also suggest current events. It's that quality of being at once immediate and timeless that sets the seal of greatness on a story, even – or especially – when the telling of it is modest.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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