11 and 12, Barbican Theatre, London
The Early Bird, Finborough Theatre, London
In Memory of Edgar Lutzen, Old Red Lion, London

Peter Brook’s long-awaited directorial return to Britain has the rug pulled from under it by a play that fails to engage

Peter Brook’s latest production, 11 and 12, tells the story of a religious dispute. In West Africa during the first half of the 20th century, a small doctrinal disagreement – over whether an Islamic prayer should be repeated 11 times or 12 – escalated into a major feud.

It led to Muslim-on-Muslim massacres and a crackdown by the French colonial administration. They suspected one camp of covert anti-imperialism, so they threw key members into jail and, apparently, threatened them with torture.

Characteristically, Brook leaves his audience to discern any contemporary parallels for themselves. Indeed, 11 and 12 is a typical piece of minimalism from this long-venerated director, author of The Empty Space and theatrical guru. The entire saga is performed, with extreme simplicity, on a rug: a square of orange cloth spread on the Barbican stage, edged by sand and a few tree stumps. Brook’s seven role-swapping actors – from the Bouffes du Nord in Paris – employ mime and imaginative playfulness. Magically, they rustle up a small boat by lifting two corners of the rug, twisting them to form a prow and stern, then rocking gently as if afloat.

The mood is one of spiritual calm, which seems almost perverse given the conflicts involved in the tale. But 11 and 12 essentially sets out to pay uncritical homage to the Sufi guru Tierno Bokar, drawing on the memoir of his disciple Amadou Hampate Ba. Though embroiled in the 11/12 schism, Bokar is portrayed as tolerant contemplativeness incarnate.

Bathed in sunshine, Makram J Khoury’s grizzled Bokar sits nodding sagely among his smiling pupils. Tunji Lucas’s strapping Hampate Ba – the principal narrator – describes encountering supremacist bullies outside this circle, yet both he and his mentor deflect life’s flak with meticulous civility. There are a few tense moments, a flurry of internecine violence, a racing patter of drums from the excellent onstage musician. But some of the acting seems flat, and the main characters’ philosophical distance is alienating.

Even the serenity becomes irritating, after a while. Brook’s stance seems to me sanctimonious – or maybe I’m just not sufficiently mellow. I did try to go with the flow, the unusually meandering storytelling and slow-paced delivery. But I kept mentally twiddling my thumbs, thinking that surely, when Bokar advocated peace, it wasn’t endless pauses that he had in mind. In any case, the great sage’s pearls of wisdom turn out to be mostly truisms or mystical twaddle.

And if you’re suffering a sense of déjà vu, that's because 11 and 12 is a replay – in English with some variations – of Brook's 2004 French production Tierno Bokar. Once was enough.

In the electrifying London fringe premiere of The Early Bird, by Leo Butler, a couple obsessively replay fragments of the past, pacing around inside a glowing, glass-walled chamber. This is a psychological prison where Catherine Cusack's Debbie and her husband, Alex Palmer's Jack, are forever condemned to brood over the disappearance of their little girl, Kimberley. She was, we gather, abducted on her way to school, maybe by a stranger, maybe by a vicious gaggle of coevals. There are only faint echoes of Jamie Bulger and Madeleine McCann, although The Early Bird bears some resemblance to Ian McEwan's The Child in Time.

Donnacadh O'Briain's production generates an intense, interrogatory intimacy. The audience encircles the glass, close up, as if peering straight into the couple's living-room, or through a thought bubble into their minds. Initially, they recall the mundane minutiae of the morning Kimberley vanished: the Coco Pops for breakfast; the parental row about running late. Then jump-cutting back and forth between the panic-stricken aftermath and previous events, Butler creates the effect of feverish, leaping thoughts.

Potently disturbing is the way the finger of blame starts to swing round like a weather vane. It implicates – never conclusively – each parent in turn, as key episodes are replayed: Debbie's scary post-natal instability; Jack encouraging Kimberley's nightmares about monsters.

As their shattered minds and wrecked marriage are exposed, Cusack and Palmer lash out with hair-raising, feral hatred. A less accomplished staging would struggle in the scenes which reach back to their slushy honeymoon period, when they croon Madonna's cheesy "La isla bonita". However, sound designer Philip Stewart adds a creepy echo to that, and a macabre doppelgänger effect whenever one of the adults plays the child, giggling with a split voice (simultaneously high and low) as if possessed by her spirit.

The demons of a deranged mind plague the artist turned alchemist of the title in David Hauptschein's verbose Gothic drama, In Memory of Edgar Lutzen, based on August Strindberg's deeply bonkers occult diaries. In Julio Maria Martino's budget production, Tom Cornish's Lutzen lets his persecution mania run wild, dashing around in his long johns and howling about "the hand of the unseen thwarting my every advance" or sinister forces "spying on my synthesis of gold".

I could have done with less gibbering and more crackpot chemistry. Stuck in a gloomy garret with nary a round-bottomed flask in sight, the possessive Cornish drives all his visitors up the wall – including his doctor, who takes drastic action. Even ghoulishly undead, the nut is still muttering under the bedsheets. What an infernal bore.

'11 and 12' (0845 120 7550) to 27 Feb, and touring; 'The Early Bird' (0844 847 1652) to 27 Feb; 'In Memory of Edgar Lutzen' (020-7837 7816) to 20 Feb

Next Week:

Kate Bassett heads for Sheffield's newly refurbished Crucible for incoming actor-manager Daniel Evans's opening show: Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, with Antony Sher

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