NZ Arts Festival: 11 and 12 review

By Mark Amery

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A scene from '11 and 12', playing at the NZ International Arts Festival. Photo / Pascal Victor
A scene from '11 and 12', playing at the NZ International Arts Festival. Photo / Pascal Victor

11 and 12 travels to New Zealand carrying a lot of cultural baggage. Ironic given that over forty years ago director Peter Brook arguably revolutionised the British stage with the concept of the empty space.

In terms of baggage not only has it taken this time for a Peter Brook production to come here – hence building quite a mystique - there's also this work's long gestation through several other works in Paris, and the fact that it's an English translation of a French adaptation of an African writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ's own autobiographical writing - drawing on the complex politics and spiritual divides of early 20th century French colonial administered Mali.

Then there's the fact that it's all brought to life by a truly multicultural cast. All this might leave you feeling you need to go along to this production very well read and able to nod knowledgeably at appropriate moments.

Not so. Brook's mastery continues to be finding direct, elegant, quiet and simple ways to present complex things. One of 11 and 12's strengths is that it's simple, but not simplistic.

It teases out complexities, with theatre playing a storytelling role of providing fables out of detail that rise above life's complications.

Universal truths are revealed from specific circumstances, in this case Ba's own story of being born into a tradition African village, entering brutal French colonial administration, and encountering two remarkable spiritual leaders. The title of the work comes from a dispute over whether a prayer should be recited eleven or twelve times. This is a dispute that Ba as principal narrator says sees "a bead turn into a bomb". Religious and political war arises from the simplest of dogmatic disagreements.

All the varied cultural elements that construct this work help to emphasise that it is about being able to rise above cultural, spiritual and racial differences to find peace in the world. The work quietly and gently exemplifies in every way its most common action - that expressed in the Christian church in the words "peace be with you".

You may expect, however, a weightier and more significant theatre experience than this work actually provides. 11 and 12 is an unusually understated work in an arts festival programme. At the work's conclusion there was a silence in the auditorium before the applause. I took this to be a sign that the atmosphere had shifted to quiet contemplation. Others have described the work as soporific. My feelings are more mixed.

Yes, the work is small and not particularly emotionally effecting. Ultimately it is too uninvolving. It provides room to muse but there's little time to grow any attachment to the characters as it jumps from one story to the next.

Yet the cast are excellent and there is a beauty in its almost untheatrical - plain but ingenious - presentation, relying on the beautiful use of a few basic props. Then there's the gorgeous unobtrusive live soundscape by Japanese composer Toshi Tsuchitori (who has been with Brook since 1976), employing an arsenal of small instruments.

Being untheatrical isn't a problem with Brook, it's the fact that as a play 11 and 12 is rather undramatic. This is particularly the case in the last half hour, where it feels like the movement of its story has been completed. It's at this point a reverence takes over and the discussion onstage tends to become more internal. I struggled at times to hear the actors with clarity, particularly past the accents of the two great Palestinian actors playing the two Sufi mystics, Makram J. Khoury as Tierno Bokar and Khalifa Natour as Cherif Hamallah.

11 and 12's interest as a piece of writing is in part its polished plainness. Kernels of wisdom, rather than poetic fireworks, shine through, revealing the work's thematic integrity. After one petty incident for example where, abhorring what he sees, Ba must make a choice about continuing to work where he does, he is offered the advise "purity is in the man, not in the place". Thoughts like these ring out.

The production's greatest strength is its internal intellectual integrity, and this translates through to the way the company works together. It is able to be pan-spiritual and pan-global whilst paying respect to different beliefs and not being some wishy-washy hippy melange of beliefs. It is political theatre at its most quiet.

* 11 and 12 runs from March 10-14 at St James Theatre, as part of the NZ International Arts Festival in Wellington.

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