Adapted from the work of Amadou Hampate Ba by Marie-Helene Estienne
Directed by Peter Brook
Company: C.I.C.T./Theatre des Bouffes Nord
Venue: Barbican Theatre
Date: Saturday 20th February 2010
What a day we’ve had! Congestion on our usual route to Haywards Heath meant a long detour via Crawley. We caught the last possible train to London Bridge, only to find that the various tube line closures had led to a horde of would-be travellers clogging up the platforms of the Northern Line, so we had to wait, in a growing crowd, for the gates to open. After enduring all the jostling that such a pent-up mass of people creates, we were glad to finally get to Moorgate and the open, empty spaces of the Barbican, that cultural hub in the City. As Steve said, we thought things couldn’t get any worse, and then…..
Actually, the play started very well and but for some slower spells might easily have earned a higher rating. For one thing, the Barbican theatre was back to its comfortable best, so we could relax and enjoy the performance. It’s a mighty big stage, but this small group of seven actors and one musician commanded it with ease. I could hear almost every word – some that I missed were probably African words or place names – and the simple set did a great job of evoking the various locations. I especially liked the simple use of a cloth, held up on either side of the kneeling main character, to show his boat ride up the river.
The story is about a division that occurred between some Muslims who believed a certain prayer was to be said 11 times, and others who believed it should be said 12 times. From such minor differences a deadly conflict grew, until the last senior spiritual representative of the 11 ‘faction’, a man who was only ever interested in peace, died, and took the anger of the others with him.
There were other issues too, to do with the French authorities and their involvement, and the wider context snuck in occasionally, such as WWII. The actors took on multiple roles, naturally, although Makram J. Koury played Tierno Bokar throughout, apart from one short scene when he played his own mother, pouting beautifully at the prospect of her son being sent away to school. Jackets, scarves, shawls, etc were used to distinguish the roles, and it all worked very well.
The set was open, with a red cloth in the middle, some symbolic trees on wheels, various ‘logs’ and branches, and lots of sand everywhere. The musician sat to the right with an amazing assortment of instruments – don’t ask me to name any of them – and apart from a dramatic clash of cymbals when the fighting started, played gently appropriate music throughout.
In fact, if I have any complaint at all about this production, it would be that the gentleness of it sometimes made it less interesting. There were also a number of pauses, and I felt these contributed to this effect. Having said that, the spiritual nature of much of the story might have been lost in a more lively performance, so perhaps it was all for the best.
One of my favourite bits was a story told by Bokar near the start of the play. He tells the children of a snake, called Attica(?), who was always being chased by the villagers. A voice told him, Attica, don’t bite. So then he only smiled at the villagers when they walked past. Pretty soon they started testing him, spitting at him and hitting him and throwing stones at him, but he just smiled. As he lay there, so battered and bruised he couldn’t crawl, the voice told him, Attica, I told you not to bite. I didn’t tell you not to hiss. A lovely story, and very well told.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me