Sunday, February 14, 2010
"A Play on Tolerance and Reason: Nearly 85, Director Peter Brook Continues to Explore Spiritual Themes Within a Multicultural Context" By PAUL SHARMA, February 12, 2010, Wall Street Journal
With his current work at London's Barbican Theatre, director Peter Brook returns to West Africa and examines a conflict in Mali, which, fueled by French colonialism and religious arguments, reached its peak in the 1940s.
Adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne and Mr. Brook from the book "The Sage of Bandiagara" by African writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ, the play "11 and 12" tells how teacher Tierno Bokar is drawn steadily into a dispute over whether a certain prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times, which leads inexorably to hatred and massacres.
Like Mr. Brook's 1985 theater production "Mahabharata," the work has undergone a number of revisions and has slowly evolved into its present form. This version was first performed in Paris last November, while earlier versions were performed in the U.S. and Europe under the name of the main character "Tierno Bokar."
As he prepares to turn 85 next month, Peter Brook's recent work can be viewed in a line of lifetime work that explores spiritual themes within a multicultural context, including the Indian epic "Mahabharata," and his film based on G. I. Gurdjieff's book "Meetings With Remarkable Men."
So while on the surface, "11 and 12" seems far removed from some of his earlier productions -- not least the famous "A Midsummer's Night Dream" of 1970 -- it continues to explore the idea that theater has a unique language between thought and gesture -- by telling the story as a set of interweaving parables.
We caught up with Mr. Brook's long-term collaborator and the play's writer, Marie-Hélène Estienne, in Paris by phone as the Bouffes du Nord group was preparing to come to London for their four-week residency. Mr. Brook founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris in 1971 and it moved to its permanent base in the Bouffes du Nord Theatre in 1974.
"The project has taken at least 30 years and started around the same time as when we worked on 'The Conference of the Birds,' which is also a Sufi text, so the two pieces are connected," Ms. Estienne said.
"After agreeing to the rights to 'Tierno Bokar,' we adapted the play seven years ago and the first version in French was produced around five years ago. Even 'The Conference of the Birds' was done in English and French. We were satisfied, but not 100%, with the French version. It's like that with some pieces. For us, it's a bit like the 'Mahabharata,' which was worked on for 20 years," Ms. Estienne continued. "When we came to do the English version we made some changes to the cast: The piece now has fewer actors -- seven and one musician -- and only has men, as the women's roles didn't work that well in the French version. And now, the cast has two Palestinian actors and less of an African presence. Overall, we call it a 'carpet show' rather than a chamber piece and we feel it is more alive than the previous versions."
The play's central story concerns a disagreement over how many times a prayer should be repeated, which is given additional importance due to the focus on prayer and zikr (remembrance) in Sufism, which is often characterized as emphasizing the more mystical side of Islam and has its own distinctive aspects in West Africa.
The play is linked to a Sufi order called Tidjania, which first recited "The Pearl of Perfection" prayer 11 times and then later shifted to 12 times, Ms. Estienne explains. "Many, many years later Sheikh Lakdhar from Algeria traveled to West Africa to return the order back to the original 11 times, which he viewed as more serious and sacred practice," she says.
While the play's central character Tierno Bokar follows the now established orthodox practice of 12 times, 11 is the insurrectionary figure used by a younger teacher, Cherif Hamallah. And it is Tierno Bokar's adoption of Hamallah's view, as both an act of reconciliation and spiritual conversion, which leads to his downfall, followed in time by Hamallah's.
"This religious disagreement which started around 1910, eventually developed into a tribal conflict that reached a peak at the start of the Second World War, with thousands being killed, with the French and the Vichy government siding with the 12. Of course after the play ends, we saw the end of the Vichy regime, Charles de Gaulle and then Algeria," Ms. Estienne said. "The aim of Hampaté Bâ's book was to reconcile the two groups and now the relations between the two groups is much better, nothing like it was during the '40s and the war."
Perhaps the key lines in the text come from Tiero Bokar: "There are three truths, my truth, your truth, and the truth ... Our truths are crescent moons situated on one side or another of the perfect circle of the full moon. Most of the time, when we argue and only listen to ourselves, our crescent moons turn their backs on one another. First we must turn them back toward one another, then our two crescent moons will be face to face, they will gradually come closer and closer and perhaps in the end meet one another in the great circle of truth."
The play "11 and 12" is at the Barbican Theatre in London until Feb. 27, accompanied by a season of films by Peter Brook.
Write to Paul Sharma at Paul.Sharma@dowjones.com