Now in London, it’s not too difficult for us too to identify with the recognisable characteristics of a comparable national history (current neo-colonial misdemeanours included).
It’s not just the tyranny of Western rule over Africa that is transferable but the thick vein of religious tolerance that runs through the play.
Christians and Muslims alike are subject to God’s commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, Brook tells us, and while the play deals exclusively with Islam, the parallels with Christianity are obvious. The holy man Cherif Hamallah stands bound before his French master, like Christ before Pilate, and the narrator Amadou talks of the occupying governer as “washing his hands” of his charges. Time and again, the similarities of religious belief and iconography strike chords across the supposed divide.
Making few concessions to entertainment, Brook takes us on a slow, meditative trawl through a fragmentary history of West Africa before the Second World War. The play is based on real-life events, as noted by Malian writer Amadou Hampat B, born 1900, became a minor official in the French administration, later an ambassador for UNESCO, died 1991.
There’s a solemnity and reverence to the play that will prove too austere for some tastes. At times, the philosophising and moralising seem simplistic (“There’s your truth, my truth, The Truth”). The story, such as it is, revolves around the African writer’s spiritual teacher Tierno Bokar and an arcane argument over whether prayers should be recited 11 or 12 times. The choice of 11 by some religious men comes to represent a deep-seated defiance to the colonial authorities, who are prepared to exile and kill for so seemingly trivial a matter.
We are told in the programme notes that this dispute led to feuds, violence and massacres, although we see little of such theatrical potential in this piece. Everything, even the despotism of the French rulers, is treated with gentleness (in keeping with the theme of tolerance perhaps) and at a slow, slow pace by the all-male international cast, who slip between characters, black and white, with ease. A shaven head is one moment that of a priest, the next of a cruel torturer.
The master director creates images of great beauty, with the simplest of means and there’s sincerity in the delivery but one can’t help feeling that Brook and his writer Marie-Hlne Estienne, both of whom knew and revered Hampat B, are a little too close to the subject.