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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred