Theater archives

A Meandering Brook Tells a Murky Parable of Intolerance


The theater Peter Brook has created in recent years is a serene place, an open space spread with rugs or mats, with only a few stools or pillows for furniture. It tells its stories at a laconic pace, in an easygoing, peaceable tone. There is sometimes a little tension, but never any violence; the days of Brook’s ferocious King Lear and his harrowing Marat/Sade are long gone. Third-worldish in ambience, anti-intellectual in the mild fun it pokes at academia, gnomic in its moralizing, it suggests a downscale version of those mythic courts, common to the folktales of all cultures, where the proponents of warring religions or philosophies are brought together by a benevolent king to debate the relative merits of their beliefs.

One tends to nod out while reading such tales, and I won’t deny having nodded occasionally while watching Tierno Bokar, a fact-based story about rival schools of thought among Muslims in French Africa in the early 20th century. The point at issue is whether the Pearl of Perfection, a prayer recited at daily devotions, should be chanted twelve times or only eleven. The ruling clan supports twelve; a few mystics, teachers revered for piety and wisdom, opt for eleven. The French colonial masters, playing up to the predominant party, pressure and incarcerate the elevensers. Tierno Bokar, a teacher of the latter way, dies serenely in isolation; the community that shunned him comes quickly to regret his loss.

Brook traces a winding and digressive path to this story, often lovely to watch in its uninflected way. A lot of reading (of supertitles) is involved; even if you know French, the unfamiliar vocabulary and the appealing chime of African accents make the dialogue tricky to catch. The piece is graceful and sincere. Whether its grace is a sufficient balm for the conflicts that have riven Muslim, Christian, and Jew from one another is a different matter. Those peaceable courts where religion is debated calmly seem very far away; our current world looks more like the asylum at the end of Marat/Sade.