I begin to wonder what kind of failing it can be in me that I scarcely ever respond feelingly to the work of Peter Brook. I am impressed by the apparently instinctive connection with the human dimension of thoughts, emotions and actions, even when the characters depicted may be gods. I admire the style which combines a sense of the ritual of storytelling with, again, a fundamental humanity forming a direct communal bond between performers and audience. But the strength of feeling the pieces elicit always seems well within the limits of decorum.
This is especially apparent when, as here, the subject contains a dimension of the numinous. The life of Tierno Bokar, a Sufi teacher in the Mali area of French West Africa in the early 20th century, was filled with the vital importance of tolerance and reflection. His teachings in his own Sufi school emphasised as much, and when he at length embraced as master a man from a different branch of the tradition, leading to his expulsion from his home of Bandiagara, he accepted with stoicism such a verdict and continued to teach consideration. More than once Marie-Hélène Estienne's text has Tierno explain, "There are three truths: my truth, your truth and the truth."
The 100-minute piece begins as little more than a series of illustrative episodes, almost parables. Gradually, a larger narrative builds up: of Tierno and his students, one of whom leaves for a more formal education and a post in the French colonial administration before forsaking it to return and study spirituality; of the doctrinal strife centring on whether a devotional prayer should be recited eleven or twelve times; of Tierno's own search for the truth and preparedness to be persuaded, and of the social pressures both amongst the Malians and between them and the colonists. Sotigui Kouyaté is at once grave and serene as Tierno; Pitcho Womba Konga also impresses as Hamallah, the younger man who becomes the master's master.
It's performed (in French) with unobtrusive delicacy, beautifully accompanied on a number of traditional musical instruments, and all deeply significant. But surely this is a message that needs to be borne in with a visceral conviction to match its intellectual persuasiveness, and this is what Brook's style seems to me to eschew.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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