It's not a play, but a 'theatrical research', according to the programme. Set in Mali in the 1930’s, it’s the story of Tierno Bokar, a Sufi mystic. Brook’s 'research' describes the conflict that arises within a Sufi community over the number of times that a particular prayer is recited.
Wise, modest Bokar teaches tolerance. Bokar (Tierno means master) uses pithy sayings to convey his message to his pupils. One hour and 50 minutes later, religion and politics (native and that of the colonial French) has led to his ostracism and death.
Cue a cartoon thought bubble containing the words President Bush’s War On Terror! President Bush’s War On Terror! appearing over your head.
Time for the obvious parallels. Peter Brook? He’s that wise, modest theatre director, who left England for France, so that he can continue to be a wise, modest theatre director. Brook, revered as a master of his art, is known for speaking to his pupils through aphorisms (that’s what his public conversation with Richard Eyre, before this performance, sounded like to me, anyway).
Tierno Bokar seemed, at times, to be a collection of Brook’s epigrams on tolerance, performed transparently by ten of his collaborators, who share a stage with two very gifted musicians. Even the set is pithy, containing only scenic elements, against a black backdrop. There’s a tree shape. There's straw matting. There’s a rug that’s not just a rug - it’s also a river.
On stage, Bokar says: “Only he who’s been thrown into the river, truly knows the river.”, or something like that. The Sufis, you see, believe real learning comes through direct experience.
And he says: “There’s three types of truth, yours, mine and the truth.”
Lots of words. Lots of potent phrases and a performance so reliant on spoken narration, there was little dramatic tension, little real learning by an audience kept at a distance. But that’s ok, I’m not mean enough to be intolerant of a theatrical research exploring the power of tolerance.
The Warwick Arts Centre theatre was full tonight. The audience, as far as I could tell, loved it. I’m glad I went to this entertaining, interesting, thought provoking experience.
Tonight I saw Bokar, like Brook in the past, visiting the cinema and dismissing it.
Now he’s done his research, I hope Brook, can find a way to bring Tierno Bokar to a screen near me.
This storyboard, if shown and not told, might reveal the importance of the master’s message to a mass audience.