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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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