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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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