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Two plays about the embarrassment of the human mind

NZ International Arts Festival11 & 12 by Peter BrookSt James TheatreUntil March 14Theoremat, by Grzegorz JarzynaTSB Bank ArenaUntil March 19With “11 & 12” and “Theoremat” the festival provided two outstanding plays by two m

John Daly-Peoples
Sun, 14 Mar 2010

NZ International Arts Festival

11 & 12 by Peter Brook
St James Theatre
Until March 14

Theoremat, by Grzegorz Jarzyna
TSB Bank Arena
Until March 19

With “11 & 12” and “Theoremat” the festival provided two outstanding plays by two major international directors. One by a director who has changed the face of theatre over the last half century and the other who will probably change theatre over the next half century.

If Richard Dawkins were reviewing the two plays he would get apoplectic about them. He would lament the wasted energy and creativity which has gone into the debates, both large and small about understanding God and the sacred.

The plays, he would lament show mankind’s great flaw, spending so much time and energy in the pursuit of primitive beliefs dressed up as a spurious form of philosophical thought.

Would he have seen Brook as an apologist for the good that comes from the personal search for the truth or as falling for the same spiritual claptrap that has turned the heads of many sensible people over the centuries in all cultures.

“11 & 12” is a play by older man looking back on his own life and the life of the theatre. It is tinged with the wisdom and regret which is said to come with age

It is also contemplation on the profundities and insanities of religious fanatics and their followers.

Religion in this play is paired with colonialism and is set in French Mali in the 1930’s and 1950’s. The overlay of Islam on the country is akin to the imposition of French rule over the territory. Both sets of rules have been enforced for the good of the people, a belief in the need for order and the purity of truth. But both are culturally destructive.

There are twinned stories; one of a young man who leaves his village to work for the French, the other is the ongoing rivalry between a mystic and an imam about the religious nicety of whether a prayer should be recited eleven or twelve times.

The tiny theological debate results in animosity and violence and when it is used as a political tool what follows is widespread death and destruction.

Brook attempts to show how individuals attempt to understand the realities of society, religion and politics but as one of his characters says,”There is your truth, my truth and the truth.”

The play is not so much theatre as the slow unfolding of a fable. A group of men sitting in a space somewhere between dessert, village square and mosque reworking a tale which is centuries old as well as of today.

“Theoremat”, based on a Pier Pasolini film of the 1960’s would probably be categorised as being “Theatre of Despair” or “Theatre of Unfulfilled Dreams.”

It concerns a wealthy man, his wife, two children and the maid. Over one day they are transformed or corrupted by an enigmatic visitor.

The transformation takes the form of seduction but it is not just a sexual awakening for each of the characters but rather they gain knowledge about themselves and their place in society.

At one level the play is a tirade against the excesses of capitalism but at another it is about the weakness of individuals to understand their need to play a role in their family and the wider society.

When the play opens the wealthy industrials tells us he will take questions before he proceeds. There are several questions from plants in the audience, the first one – “What do you think of New Zealand”, gets the reply “I don’t understand the question”, this was followed by the serious one “Do you believe in god?” again “I dont understand the question”

That reply is at the heart of much of the play with the characters not understanding what their roles are. They are there in part to allow the audiences to observe and comment on their life so that when a final group of people onscreen are asked if they believe in miracles it is the audience who is being questioned - has what we have seen on the stage, the transformation of individuals, been a miracle, an awakening or a deception.

Throughout the play the audience are voyeurs of the family’s dynamics, its secrets and its indiscretions. The characters in return acknowledge out presence even occasionally addressing us directly.

With the slowly evolving scenes the audience is able to concentrate on observing the characters, becoming aware of the stillness and spaces between them. It is the physical manifestation of the personal distance between the characters.

What gives the play its intensity and drama is the brilliant staging; a combination of lighting, music, sets and superb acting.

The lighting owes much to the original film and other Italian films of the 1960's but also the dramatic lighting of Hollywood films of the 1930’sw and 50’s.

Each of the sequences is like an individual cinematic scene with each building on the other to create a frightening level of emotional complexity.

Possibly Richard Dawkins would quote from Peter Brook’s mystic who replies to the question “What is god?” with the ambivalent statement “God is the embarrassment of the human mind.”




John Daly-Peoples
Sun, 14 Mar 2010
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Two plays about the embarrassment of the human mind