Archive for February, 2010

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

February 6, 2010

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.)

Review – The Rake’s Progress – Royal Opera House

February 3, 2010

My interest in seeing the Royal Opera’s version of The Rake’s Progress broke down into two main components. First, I like Stravinsky. I’ve never seen one of his operas, though, but gotta go, right? Second, it was directed by totally famous rock star level director dude Robert Lepage. I mean, I haven’t exactly seen anything he’s done before, but all of the pictures are very cool. And, hey, I found some cheap little seats for 16 quid up in the Amphitheater. And it was going to be in English!

*sigh*

Why oh WHY couldn’t my memories of this show be of something besides the set design? Lepage (who I kept wanting to call Leplant, blame Led Zeppelin) was really wowtastic from start to finish, even though this wasn’t brand spanking new, it was only from 2007 so pretty damned close to cutting edge. This was clear even in the first scene, where the backdrop of animated clouds (over a field, as it were, seemingly in America’s Midwest) moved gently but not self-aggrandizingly, managing even to add to the feeling on stage by becoming darker as the story moved forward and Tom Rakewell (Toby Spence) made his deal with Nick Shadow (not sure who played it this night) and sealed his doom. Wow, Lepage actually gets how to incorporate animation in a way that works! It basically made me think from the very start, “Yep, we’re in the hands of a master here!”

And the miracles continue – the bed that sucks into the stage when Tom Rakewell is “claimed” by Madame Mother Goose (Frances McCafferty), the AMAZING inflatable airstream trailer that is blown up through a tiny hole in the stage, the wee, wee little house with the shadow in the windows representing Mr. Trulove trying to figure out where his daughter Anna (Rosemary Joshua) has gone while she runs around (mostly) in front of the stage as if she’s very, very far from the house. God, I loved the house. And then Anna in her car, with her scarf pulling behind her as if in the wind, finally caught (on a string) and blown away in a beautiful “moment.”

So many moments. So very boring.

According to someone who knows opera much better than I do, whom I heard as I walked toward the exit (at the interval), Toby Spence had a great voice for this part, a very youthful sound but also very strong despite the fact that he was really carrying a lot of stage time. Rosemary Joshua was judged to have not quite his stamina and to have been tiring noticably during the final scene.

I could sympathize, really. While I enjoyed the recitative (I think that’s the right word) moments that had a very 18th century sound to them that I like (will have to research how Stravinsky came up with the score), the rest of the music just wasn’t grabbing me. When the interval came, I realized I was only staying for the spectacle, and I just didn’t care enough about the singing or the rest of the music to want to stay. I’d got my money’s worth, but I was wishing I’d just given up on the tickets and gone to see another Ozu movie at the BFI instead, and angry that it was now so late that I couldn’t possibly see the last showing of Late Autumn. A bad sign, really. But, you know, Chando’s Opera Room was just a short walk away and I did manage to end the evening on a high note – just not one that was coming from a stage.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 30th, 2010. I am going to try to see Tamerlano, which I’m hoping I will enjoy more as it’s an era I groove on more. Ping me if you have some tips for cheap tix as it’s way out of my price range even in the amphitheater.)