11 and 12, Barbican Theatre, London

4.00

Meditation on a peace puzzle

Tierno Bokar is a sage with a difference. Instead of remaining smiling and nodding under his tree in an African village, he steps into a religious war.

What he then does is an example to us all – or, at least, to all faced with the same sort of problem. For, while 11 and 12 is, as one would expect from its director, Peter Brook, a lovely work of sophisticated simplicity, the note on which it ends is more wistful than wise.

Tierno Bokar was a real person, a Sufi mystic whose biography, by his disciple Amadou Hampate Ba, was used by Marie-Hélène Estienne for her play. Bokar lived from 1875 to 1939 in Mali, then ruled by the French, who are disdainful of shaking hands with blacks, but quick to raise their hands to them. As Ba (a character in the play as well as its narrator) learns, the first lesson they teach their native employees is to jump when they say jump and to smile when they do it. But the Islam of Mali is not submissive to the French. It requires that a certain prayer be said 11 times. One day some Muslims start saying it 12 times. This style of worship spreads, angering the traditional, and a civil war erupts. No matter that the 12-timers did not begin their practice as a result of revelation or lengthy debate but by accident, in order to save the face of a Muslim who arrived late to prayer one day. It's the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians all over again. Bokar is a 12-times man but when the French, who have tried in vain to end the conflict, appeal to him, he converts, to show that doctrine is less important than peace. His efforts fail, and he dies in poverty and exile, a pariah to his own people, but afterwards his heroism is given its due.

This production is a revised version of Tierno Bokar (2004), which was performed in French. Brook has said he wanted to make the language more complex, as in French the play aimed at a "pure, clear, crystalline" quality, which in English could sound didactic and boring. As performed by an international troupe of actors, it is anything but – weaving about the sand-strewn stage, beneath the three tall cleft sticks that make rudimentary trees, they act with the sinuous cohesion of a healthy organism. The all-male cast play several parts, of varying gender, age, and race, with the young white Maximilien Seweryn portraying, along with a French commander, two black Africans (is this a first in post-blackface England?). There is a delightful moment of unexpected comedy when Tunji Lucas impersonates Ba's mother, who is opposed to his leaving their village to study. After listening to Bokar, she sulkily adjusts her head covering and says, "Yes, Tierno, you have convinced me" in a tone that says: There is a pig; I see it fly. Exotic, expressive music is discreetly played on string and percussion instruments by the composer, Toshi Tsuchitori.

Bokar is played by a Palestinian, Makram J Khoury, who unites gentleness with authority and is believably saintly without being irritating. As with all the performers, his quiet but plainly audible voice in this huge theatre is water in the desert to those who have long endured shouting and mechanical amplification. But, if 11 and 12 is, for the most part, refreshing, it is at times so at the price of oversimplifying. The last few scenes are vague as the narrative bogs down and tails off, and the central question, of course, remains a narrow and toothless one. Bokar's Gulliver-style solution, that everyone be allowed to worship as he wishes, would not apply to many, perhaps most, of the religious-cum-political issues that end in battles to the death today. "This land is mine", for instance, when maintained by two sides, is not a problem susceptible to laissez-faire. While 11 and 12 will obviously have a different effect on a religious, especially Muslim, audience, to this atheist it seemed, at times, less elevated than air-headed.

To 27 February (020 7638 8891)

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