The principal emotion evoked by Peter Brook's new production is dramatically inert. sadness.
The principal emotion evoked by Peter Brook’s new production is sadness: not about the undoubtedly difficult political and religious conflicts presented onstage, but because this aged theatrical titan has created a work so dramatically inert. “11 and 12” represents the consummation of 85-year-old Brook’s long-held desire to create a theatrical context for the works of Malian writer and thinker Amadou Hampate Ba. The bare-stage setting and storytelling format typify Brook’s late-career productions. But there’s a stultifying flatness both to the story and the way it’s told: Methods and material do not combine effectively to reach out to audiences.
Set in the context of the French colonization of West Africa in the 1930s and ’40s, the play is based on the true story of the guru-disciple relationship between Amadou (Tunji Lucas) and Sufi sage Tierno Bokar (Makram J. Khoury).
As the colonial authorities attempt to turn the bright and promising Amadou into one of their functionaries, Bokar struggles to mediate a bloody conflict between different factions of the local Muslim population about whether a particular prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times. In the interests of peace, Bokar renounces his beliefs and sides with the opposing faction, but ends up losing his followers and dying alone.
Calls for religious tolerance have an evergreen relevance; Brook is clearly attempting to bring a historical and more nuanced perspective to contemporary Western images of Islam, and in particular to underline its spiritual depths and complexities.
Casting and staging choices extend Brook’s ongoing attempts to communicate universal truths via internationalized performance practices. Actors hail from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the U.S., while longtime Brook collaborator Toshi Tsuchitori sits onstage accompanying the action on traditional Japanese instruments.
Holes quickly emerge, however, in this attempt at universalism. Having all the actors speak in English (for many of them, not their mother tongue) slows down the action and hinders emotional engagement. The play involves female characters, so the choice to cast only men proves jarring. The play’s politics, as well, feel basic and dated; playing nearly all the French characters as authoritarian buffoons is not the subtlest way to make an anti-colonial critique.
Marie-Helene Estienne’s script alternates brief passages in which Lucas, as Amadou, addresses the audience directly — these make for the most engaging moments — and enacted scenes, most involving lengthy passages of spiritual teaching or political negotiation.
The pacing is loose, with actors taking long pauses between scenes and even between lines. But what starts out as a soothing, meditative atmosphere quickly turns soporific. Estienne and Brook have not built any sense of urgency or drama into the storytelling, despite the high-stakes conflicts it describes.
Overall, and ironically, it is difficult not to read this well-meaning, anti-colonial play as itself extending unequal power relations, not least because it’s so much the product of a singular, white male European imagination. It is clearly Brook’s name and his directorial signature that are fueling this three-week run in a thousand-seat London theater and subsequent multi-continent tour.
The world has radically changed in the six decades that Brook has been making theater, and the African and Middle Eastern cultures to which he historically toured his work in the 1970s are now creating their own productions for export. This is the new theatrical internationalism: Brook’s version is profoundly out of date.