A rich and fascinating couple of nights in the theatre, linked by West Africa and not much else. Peter Brook's 11 and 12 is based on the autobiography of the Malian writer Amadou Hampate Ba, and is largely concerned with debates (turning into conflicts) about how many times a particular Islamic prayer should be recited. Actually, there is only one scene in which you get to see any real conflict portrayed, so most of the time you have to take it on trust that what is being portrayed is a society in turmoil - it all looks and sounds rather peaceful and beautiful, with a wonderful Japanese musician sitting on the side of the stage, accompanying every action with a delicate soundscape. The main focus is on wise men sitting under trees, whose words may suggest that they are engaged in the world around them, but whose manner in performance implied to me that they were "rising above it". Whatever that's supposed to mean.
The best work I've seen by Brook has been fired by the energy of the immediate - like his Sizwe Banzi is Dead a couple of years ago (admittedly a bit late to protest against apartheid - but it felt like a lived piece of work). Where I part company from him is in his belief that there is something to be expressed through theatre that is "universal", and that stories from Africa and Asia are valuable not for what they say about the context from which they arise, but for "humanity". Of course, the West has much to learn from Africa (and vice-versa), but the reason for this is the difference between us, not the similarity. In his post-show talk (which was a tour de force, I may say), Brook explained that his first attempt to dramatise this story had been "very African", whereas now he was working with "humanity". In practice, this meant that the two wise men were played by Palestinian actors.....
Now - there's no doubt that these guys are very fine performers. But don't tell me they related to the story just because they were "human". And don't tell me that the audience simply read them as "human". Their presence was a clear and immediate reminder of another political conflict arising from a religious background. There's nothing "universal" about this resonance - and it's no less "spiritual" for that. Our spirituality is at its most profound when it engages with the actualities of our existence.
By contrast, I also went to the press night of The 14th Tale at the National. Rare to see the National take on something like this - a solo performance by a young black man, largely in the form of performance poetry. His name is Inua Ellams, and he manages to be very accurate in his portrayal of Nigeria, England and Ireland; of childhood and young adulthood; of family... and very funny indeed.