The influential British director Peter Brook returns to London with 11 And 12, a work five years in the making, that brings together a multinational cast in a meditation on faith, race and tolerance.
Based on a book by West African writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ, 11 And 12 recounts the author’s relationship with a Malian sage, Tierno Bokar, which began in his childhood and influenced him throughout his life. Yet the production plays not like an account of real-life events, but in the manner of a fable, written to teach the young Amadou and the audiences who watch the play about the importance of peace and understanding between religions and cultures.
The play takes us back to pre-WW2 colonial French West Africa, where the young Amadou is growing up in a land whose divisions are growing ever wider. He is sent to school in a white community and begins working as a scribe for the French administration. The divisions and antagonisms between white and black that are fostered by the colonial rulers are exacerbated by divisions within the predominant Muslim community caused by a disagreement as to whether an Islamic prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times. When the opposing leaders – Tierno Bokar and Cherif Hamallah – meet to discuss the situation, they demonstrate the necessity of tolerance towards each others’ beliefs.
Though it is a highly relevant theme rooted in today’s reality, there is a whimsical air about 11 And 12. A minimal set of rich colours, highlighted by beautiful lighting, places this story in a place so far removed from our own that it seems mythical. The atmospheric music played on traditional instruments by Toshi Tsuchitori, who sits onstage throughout, adds to this impression.
The cast play multiple roles, each of them transforming from character to character with just a change in accent or body language. Their creativity with minimal props leads to a particularly lovely scene in which Amadou travels by boat to his new school.
Yet this only adds to the impression of the play as a fable, a story handed down from generation to generation to the point that we no longer know if it is true. This is sadly appropriate; the divisions that existed in Tierno Bokar’s time have also been passed down through the years, and the grief caused by lack of tolerance between religions is as rooted in our culture as a fairytale.