11 and 12

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

C.I.C.T / Thèâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Directed by Peter Brook
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | March 10-14

Peter Brook is the doyen of modern British theatre. His work as a director also includes film and opera, and now spans eight decades. His play 11 and 12 came to Wellington with a tremendous reputation, after being exultantly received in London. The play, adapted by Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne from Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s  A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, describes a tribal conflict in Mali which was fuelled by variations in a prayer ritual conducted by two Sufi sages.

Emphatic acting from Tunji Lucas as the narrator, and vibrant, simple staging primed the audience for a strong performance. The space was divided by human physicality rather than a constructed set, with the few inanimate elements consisting of unassuming movable objects. The presence of the live musician promised an engaging soundscape. These first impressions, however, were not sustained. While 11 and 12 addresses cultural tolerance and colonial repression, these well-worn issues were not presented from a compelling or new perspective: their presentation predominantly oscillated between incongruously comedic and ham-handedly serious. It did not help that the actors playing the Sufi sages compensated for their Western European appearance with curious accents. It seems odd that some critics have considered this work, which includes a scene where a group of African Muslims rejoice over the discovery that white-man shit is black just like theirs, to be something of a panacea for strained Islamic-Western relations. Instead, it made a poor advocate for the value of cultural tolerance, relying on the stereotypes of earnest but simple Malians and obnoxious, buffoonish representations of the French colonials in order to demonstrate cultural difference. You cannot help thinking that this sort of depiction erodes understanding, rather than illuminating a sense of common humanity or giving a dignified exploration of the deeply-felt cultural differences which presently divide our world.

However, since Brook’s minimalist, even elemental approach has been an exceptionally influential concept in theatre from the immediate post-war era forward, it was not easy to dismiss the work as tiresome and pretentious. The staging had some neat tricks, including a boat bobbing on the surface of a river being represented by a folded cloth stretched between two actors. I attempted to treat the hackneyed themes of tolerance as subterfuge, a sort of bathos which would ultimately highlight the complexity of the issues, and thus rule out quick and simplistic analysis. Unfortunately, the production took itself far too seriously for that strategy to work. It’s as if the creators had assumed that audiences, in the vapid, hyper-media cacophony of the rampantly progressing 21st century, had forgotten the well-covered ground of post-colonial discourse. Or that an audience would gladly lap up anything more meaningful than such modern cause célèbres as a picture of a ‘lolcat’ lost in a cereal box. What was billed as a powerful and sophisticated work turned out to be a predictable and ultimately uninspired piece, which had little to say about drama and nothing to say about the need for tolerance.