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Arts Festival Review: 11 and 12

Arts Festival Review: 11 and 12

Review by Lyndon Hood

11 and 12
Directed by Peter Brook
Adapted from the work of Amadou Hampaté Bâ by Marie-Hélène Estienne
10 – 13 March
St James Theatre


Peter Brook has been working on this story for some time; his play Tierno Bokar was performed (in French) in 2005. 11 and 12 is adapted from the same work; the story of two religious leaders in Mali advocating tolerance and peace in the midst of religious schism (focusing on whether a certain prayer should be said eleven or twelve times) and colonial interference.

The play refers to (though doesn't precisely explore) ideas of tolerance, colonialism, personal integrity and the religious experience. There's surely something going on there.

This content (and the long gestation, and the undeniable reputation of the director) makes it all the more maddening that I couldn't find the point of the whole thing. And that is mostly because on Wednesday night the performance fell flat.

The production sat oddly the St James Theatre, as if failing to adapt to the space. This was obvious early on as Tunji Lewis, whose character's narration is our entry into the world of the play, rarely brought his eyeline high enough to include those of us sitting in the circle (it's possible the stalls had a different experience of the whole thing, though it didn't seem so).

Perhaps it was jet lag; many of the characterisations did not project enough energy to reach the edges of the restless audience; exceptions included Lewis and Makram J Khoury as the jolly and humble sage Tierno Bokar.

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The play's focus on tolerance is reflected in an international cast – something of a Peter Brook specialty. Our intitial challenge in sorting out all those accents (and the possibility some of them were working on their English as well as their performance) made the failure to capture the audience all the more critical.

The production also may have suffered in the transfer from Europe – particularly from France where it was devised.

France has a reputation for alternately ignoring or fearing its Muslim population, mostly the diasporia of former African colonies. There is much here to make a modern French audience sit up and take notice; not least the way the arbitrary justice of the colonial authorities inflames a religious dispute by choosing sides (an administrator delares that you are either "with the French regime or against it"). Possible efforts to draw comedy from the situation of the local servants of the colonial administration did not especially fly in Wellington either.

Altogether the lack of spark in the performance made finding the spirit in this spiritual play more a matter of after-the-fact analysis than experience.

What is remarkable about the story – and could be about the play – would be the all-enduring holiness of its characters and the affirmation that such people lived. The passive noncompliance of religious leader Cherif Hamallah (played by Khalifa Natour) before the authorities is irresistibly reminiscent of the trials of Christ – and if their final outcome is exile from Africa, it still ends in death. Tierno Bokar, refusing to comply with local mores in the number of prayers, is cast out from the mosque (likewise to eventual death). He takes this sentence with his usual humility, and (I assume) as better than allowing the dispute to go on. His death, we are told, ends the quarrel. It's a reminder that one does not have to be Christian to turn the other cheek.

This, then would be the 'hook', rather than and particular theatrical magic in the production. The play is an adapted memoir, and the script and performances have a presentational style, full of things declared rather than shown (though various facts, such as the full religious and political depth of the religious dispute, remain unclear). It was also unrelentingly earnest.

Dramatically, the stakes seem strangely low. With Cherif Hamallah's unflappability under trial we are given no cue to appreciate his peril (hence, it's not very interesting to watch). The outbreaks of sectarian violence – surely the critical peril of the whole piece, that make the tolerance and pacifism heroic – are portrayed in a single, almost play-acted sequence. Hamallah shakes his head over it and we move on.

Brook's early reputation was made by placing the flag for modern theatre; the land is now thoroughly colonised. So it's not a surprise that those habits that were once revolutionary might seem unremarkable. The minimal set: and certainly very fine, a red rectangle on the stage with a smear of sand and another red rectangle hanging in the distance, crumpled red cloth in the middle distance, with craved trees moved (admittedly, on rather obvious casters) to reshape the space scene by scene. That alchemy of objects is there, if limited: a folded cloth becomes a boat and crushed sand under the floor-cloth a charnel pile, and that's about it.

Something else Brook was noted for in his Mahabharata was, for all the multiculturalism of his crew, some degree of insensitive appropriation in the work. 11 and 12 is not clear about where takes more specifically than 'Africa', which seems to sell short a lot of physical and cultural geography [1]. But perhaps it's just another bit of background that was deemed unnecessary.

I can't shake the suspicion there was a good piece of theatre in 11 and 12. But we didn't see it last night.

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[1] Update: For more on this point and others, I'm grateful for this review on the Arts Festival website with a different perspective from Ilija Trojanow who is appearing at the NZ Post Writers and Readers Week.

Press release: Iconoclastic Director Debuts His Latest Play In NZ
Arts Festival website: 11 and 12
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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