Review – 11 and 12 – Peter Brook’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Barbican

by

Last night I went with J and A to see the new Peter Brook show at the Barbican Center. To be honest, I hadn’t really cared much about what it was about: I just wanted to see something by Peter Brook! I mean, can you say legend? I personally can barely remember any names of people involved in theater at all (it’s a personal failing, or, rather, it’s how I like it to be); mostly I worship the cult of The Author. Anyway, I had bought tickets back in December for this thing, and I’d gone for a preview performance (extra savings), and, in a moment of genius by the Barbican in their pricing structure, I’d actually bought second row seats for far cheaper than anything in the middle, meaning that I was feeling quite damned smug when I realized that for a mere six quid (with further member discount) I’d scored an entirely brilliant position right in front of the stage, second row center.

Okay, well, truth be told, I wasn’t actually feeling that gleeful, because the description of the show I was about to see made me think of, I kid you not, skipping out on it altogether. Colonial Africa – oppression – stupid religious factionalism driving people apart. It just all seemed like another opportunity to be lectured at from the stage by yet another smug white person who wanted to make sure we all were feeling guilty about how we’d screwed the world up. GAH message productions GAH depressing content GAH being lectured to on stage. It just made me want to club a baby seal, or, you know, sit and drink instead of watching the show. But, crap, it did say that it was less than two hours running time (around 90 minutes), straight through no break, so … I made myself go.

As the curtain metaphorically opened on the stage (as there was no curtain but you know what I mean), I saw an utterly stripped down set, basically four tree-ish sticks on rolling platforms in front of a very large rectangle of fabric, with a musician (Toshi Tsuchitori) off to the side. Its “lessness” was like being hit in the head with a … er, club, and what it said was This Is Peter Brook. Because, you know, Peter Brook is Mr. The Empty Stage and pretty much any time you see so very little on a stage it is saying Peter Brook Was Here even if it’s not a show by him. But this was a polished perfection of lessness. Nothing looked cheap or “settled for;” it looked “I thought very long and hard and this is exactly, without question, how I wanted to express my vision.” I was impressed, not by it’s “lessness,” but by … well, shit, it was like seeing some painting by Dali or somebody of that caliber, where just nothing was left to chance. It was like an altar, every tiny bit seething with meaning and potential. In London, the received theatrical style is so much one of explicit realism, and, while I do really appreciate the perfection of that form, this was every bit as powerful as any overdesigned, 100% historically accurate reproduction of the sort I feel I’ve seen rather a lot of in recent years. Brook’s set was like leaving the planet London for, er, Antartica.

Or, in this case, Africa. 11 and 12 is set in Mali, in the Africa that was ruled by the French, in a period of time that’s not discussed too explicitly in the play but which seems to be about thirty or forty years that end after World War II (based on a description of the types of people who were kept prisoner at a certain jail in France). But we’re not loaded under a mountain of teachy historical specificity and boring recitations of begats: instead, we’re given a few people, a random occurrence, and one young man (Tunji Lucas) making his way through life.

Now, there’s a weighty atmosphere of Life Under the French (a matter of some interest to me after my visit to Morocco; I’ve felt hatred for America before but never such a loathing as I experienced there for a nation as individuals), but the skein is one of friendships and the strange ramifications of the inadvertent twelfth recitation of a prayer. The young man is the student of a kind, religious man (Tierno, Makram J Khoury) who tells parables and basically teaches peace and acceptance; but in an atmosphere of paranoia and control where the French Directorate is basically a stand-in for every police force in the world that could just as easily been created by Kafka. The ongoing questions is, why are two halves of this country arguing to the point of murder over whether or not a prayer should be recited eleven or twelve times? This is the question that weighs heavily on the play, not which number is right. The French see eleven as a point of rebellion; the people see the choice of one or another as a matter of identity; those who worship the way of peace – for so Tierno and his peer (Cherif, Khalifa Natour) are despite being on opposite sides – see it as a matter of no importance.

This attitude of theirs is what makes this play more than just a perfectly told tale of one man’s life as a bureaucrat under an oppressive regime and turns it into something rich. I loved the presentation and the imagery and the cat and mouse games the locals played with each other and the French; I was interested in the history that was being slid in; but I really enjoyed feeling my mind expanding to think about the philosophical questions Tierno and Cherif brought up. This was no glad-handed Hakuna Matata crap; it was solid questions about what divides us, what makes us human, how does religion fit into it all, why are people cruel. I wasn’t just getting a story; I was getting an insight into humanity.

As it ended and I sat there thinking (and talking) about what we’d just seen, I tried to pick it apart to find the flaws. Yeah, the women depicted didn’t have very flattering roles. And there was a certain lack of spontenaeity to the production – everything seemed to have been thought out to the very last second and to lack room for … I don’t know, breathing, for the actors to be in the now and not just performing the perfectly chosen “this is the word, this is the movement” the production seemed to dictate. The only second I saw that didn’t seem to be prechosen was when Khoury couldn’t get a tree to sit still and had to move himself to the ground, soon after to be followed by Khalifa. But otherwise, every lovely moment of ever so very little seemed to have been scripted from the ceiling right down to the floor.

Still, though, it was all really done so well. As we left, I remembered that I’d seen Peter Brook’s name a million times at my house, on the side of a little textbook my husband has from his college days. How could someone I associated with crumbling paper create something so alive? I went expecting to be preached to and instead enjoyed this lovely vision of people living and thinking about their lives that seemed so just … perfect. Like everything I always hope theater will be. And I only paid six quid to be in the middle of all this. I felt a bit like a cheater; I hadn’t paid so little to have so very much given to me. But how would Tierno have seen it? I think he would have seen it as an opportunity to give back. And so I give this to you. 11 and 12: gosh, it was good. I know it was better than almost everything I saw last year, and will likely rise like cream amidst the shows of 2010, as it is a piece of truly outstanding theater. Don’t miss the chance to see this. 11 and 12 is theatrical perfection.

(This review is for a performance seen on Friday, February 5th, 2010. It was supposedly a preview but I have no idea how they’re going to improve it. For further reviews, please see A Younger Theater and The Guardian. My husband is going to buy the book it was based on, Hampate Ba’s “The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar: The Sage of Bandiagara.” Also,Toshi Tsuchitori was fantastic. The show runs through February 27th. Hesitate to purchase tickets and live to regret it.)

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Review – 11 and 12 – Peter Brook’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Barbican”

  1. Mark Says:

    Like you I loved it. Having heard it totally dismissed on Radio 4’s Saturday review I had toyed with the idea of trying to get a refund. I’m very glad I didn’t. I honestly didn’t recognise the piece described on Radio 4 in what i was seeing. What is the matter with those people? Brook’s ‘The Ik’ at the Roundhouse in 1976 was also good – if i can say that without sounding smug.

    We were also on 2nd row. Some friends who went another night sitting much further back didn’t enjoy it. they could hardly hear it.

  2. Michael Says:

    Saw this play at the Playhouse Nottingham, last night. I found it totally absorbing and really loved it. I hadn’t read any reviews before seeing it, but speaking to people afterwards it polarised opinions -vgood or boring.
    The musician added greatly to the play with great awareness reflecting so much of what was happening throughout

  3. Mini-review – Shunkin – Complicite at Barbican Centre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] delivery with the barest of elements (sticks, kimono, a teapot), in this case in what I see as the Peter Brook style. Shunkin’s servant, Sasuke, is portrayed both as his young self and simultaneously as his old […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: