nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 1, 2005
In a recent magazine interview, legendary theatre director Peter Brook remarked, “Of all the continents of the world, Africa is the least known… But the fact is that there is an ancient civilization of extraordinary subtlety, based on certain invisible things—and because these things are not visible, they have not been respected.” A similar analogy could be made about Brook’s new production (or “theatrical research,” as he calls it), Tierno Bokar: whatever interests him in this story is visible to him, but invisible to us. By honoring those qualities that intrigue him, he has disrespected the audience by failing to make those same qualities accessible to them.
Based on actual events, Tierno Bokar tells the story of a Sufi sage who gets caught up in a religious dispute between rival Islamic factions in 1930s French-ruled Africa. His involvement eventually leads to massacres and martyrdom, as well as political decisions that affect the course of World War II.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Like a grand, epic drama, right? Wrong. Tierno Bokar is anything but. Rather, it’s a quiet, contemplative meditation on tolerance and understanding. And, that is its problem: Brook guides the production with an earnestness and a studied mellowness that are in tune with the play’s themes, but are, frankly, boring. This low-key approach gives everything equal weight, from the play’s initial set-up to Tierno Bokar’s final tragic outcome. There is no urgency or conflict, no degrees to anything. Brook and playwright Marie-Helene Estienne make the mistake of employing constant narration throughout, thereby showing and telling the audience everything that happens (so they experience it twice—aurally and visually—in a matter of seconds), and nullifying the effect of both. The audience stops learning quickly, and they tune out. The actors don’t act as much as they exist—they just simply are. Which is interesting, from a theoretical standpoint; but it is not exciting to watch.
Brook’s trademark simplicity and lack of artifice are on full display here—the stage is decked out with mats and stools, and not much else. And, the care with which the play has been made is clear. By those standards—Brook’s standards—Tierno Bokar is a success. But, it does not succeed by any others. Yes, it embraces the tolerance it preaches—Brook’s multicultural cast is proof enough of that. But the play comes off more as a dry civics lesson, or a grad student’s thesis paper, than a living, breathing piece of theatre. Coming from a director who has made a career out of making such theatre, Tierno Bokar is a major disappointment.