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Class 5B does Africa

Peter Brook's vision of colonial Mali is surprisingly jejune.

11 and 12 is Peter Brook's latest transfer to the Barbican from his Paris theatre, the Bouffes du Nord. The cryptic title refers to real events in French colonial Mali some 80 years ago. The events were documented by the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ, and his work has been adapted for this stage production by Marie-Hélène Estienne.

In 1930s West Africa, the ciphers 11 and 12 came to represent two mutually intolerant dogmas when an internecine dispute over the number of times an Islamic prayer should be recited spiralled into bloody conflict.

What could be more compellingly pertinent than an exploration of religious difference and intolerance? When Jared McNeill holds up a tiny prayer bead at the start of the show, and marvels that such a small thing could contain such explosive power, we are all agog.

But the dramatic problems of this tale-telling become clear immediately, for this is no prologue, but the start of a narration which continues throughout the play. The action on stage merely illustrates the story being told.

It reminded me of school assemblies. Scattered about the place seemed to be Class 5B's vision of Africa: some twigs here, a bowl there, some sand. The stage was dotted with stumpy, knobbled trees, forked like catapaults. These were on wheeled platforms, and the actors dutifully hoicked them around to change the performing space. They sat on them, at their peril, as the trees were likely to shy backwards like recalcitrant shopping trolleys.

The audience experienced very little at first hand. When, about halfway through, one character said, "Let me tell you a story," you sensed that their patience was now running on a meter.

Muted quality

Much has been made of Brook's laudable "colour-blind" transcultural project, and the actors are variously African, European, Palestinian and American. They are also all male, and take on female roles as the story dictates -- which means women are a parenthetic turn performed by the men.

The actors are undoubtedly a fine bunch: Jared McNeill, as Amadou, has an engaging warmth and directness; and, at his best, Makram J Khoury exudes a sort of benevolent charm as the sage Tierno Bokar.

But I felt the ensemble was transmitting on a single frequency, as if there'd been a directive from Brook that wisdom is best conveyed by talking slowly and sometimes walking slowly; sometimes a combination of both. The outbreak of violence, when it came, was a quick and confusing scuffle-by-numbers.

Live music accompanies the acting, but this, too, has a rather muted quality. We are told that someone's head is smashed "to a pulp", and "boff" goes a drum. More impressive was the sound of the multilingual cast speaking their lines. This was rich and strange, as old words were recast as new.

Occasionally, and inevitably, the actors stumbled, defeated by the English phonemes. Now this may just be post-colonial squeamishness, but there was something unsettling about the sound and spectacle of non-native speakers submitting to the English language, in an African story retold by a European.

Compare notes with our theatre critic Andrew Billen's verdict on "11 and 12" here.

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