That’s right, folks – ignore the reviews when it comes to Peter Brook’s new show.

On Saturday afternoon I got a text message from Rachel More: “Free tickets to 11 and 12 tonight. Anyone keen?” We already had tickets booked for Sunday afternoon’s performance but I thought for a moment, “We could see Peter Brook twice!” but then common sense kicked in: if the show is as boring as the reviews claim, do I really want to see it a second time, even if it’s for free?

I’m wishing now we’d taken those free tickets. You see, I went to 11 and 12 kinda intending to enjoy it just to spite everyone else. I didn’t expect I’d come out having enjoyed it for itself rather than in spite of it.

I didn’t make the trip to Auckland to see Paul McCartney in 1993. I wanted to see the Paul of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert, not the Flaming Pie-era Paul when he’s old and past it and trotting out his greatest hits. Likewise, when the Sex Pistols were here in the late ’90s – I wanted to see them in the late ’70s, not as a bunch of old men undergoing self-parody. And the Friday night before I saw 11 and 12, I could have been in Auckland seeing The Pixies but I was just too scared of disappointment. So when it was announced that Peter Brook’s latest production would be here for the NZ International Festival of the Arts, I was excited but in an underwhelmed way – Brook’s greatest works, if you believe the scholarly hype, were over 30 years ago, and really, if I were to see a Peter Brook production I’d want to see the nihilist-King Lear, the white-box Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Marat/Sade-era Brook, not the Flaming Pie-era Brook.

But 11 and 12 isn’t Brook’s middle-aged, middle-of-the-road Flaming Pie where the artist knows their best work is decades behind them and is just trying to keep himself occupied. 11 and 12 is Brook’s equivalent of The Tempest – not so much a farewell to the theatre as a culmination of decades of work; a distilling of all the vital elements of what have made him arguably the greatest director of the 20th century (which yes, was last century – but I think my point is that history will remember him as belonging to the 20th century rather than the 21st).

All the defining Peter Brook characteristics are there: the set included the iconic red carpet or mat that Conference of the Birds has us believe was rolled out in every African town Brook’s troupe visited in the early ’70s. 11 and 12 combined elements of Africa and France with a Noh sense of timelessness which made clear how huge an influence Japan has been on Brook’s theatre as well as Africa. An ensemble of eight – seven performers and one musician – moved from role to role, time zone to time zone, present to past tense, all through the most amazing economy of gesture, action, language, costume, prop. They seemed to conjure each new environment and character out of nothing more than walking onto the mat and inhabiting it. Everything was about simplicity and nothingness – all the set elements seemed to scream potential, and I’m sure any other director would have found a thousand clever and theatrical uses for the mat, the logs, the trees. What I loved about the set for 11 and 12 was that Brook and his actors never destroyed its potential by actually using it for anything, bar a few simple moments of evocation. And when there were ‘theatrical’ images (such as Amkoullel’s boat) the simplicity was such that you realised, here is a director who has been doing this his entire life, who knows every trick in the book. And what I took to be the central dramatic moment in the play – the 3am meeting of Tierno Bokar and Cherif Hamallah – is played in absolute silence – no words, just the two mystics wandering the stage in torchlight while Toshi Tsuchitori’s magnificent music speaks worlds.

I have never in my life seen such a perfectly balanced ensemble of actors – they were all, at all times, absolutely on the same page vocally, physically, intellectually despite being a multi-racial cast of hugely disparate age, shape, size, colour, background. John Smythe’s review claims that the changing of narrators as the play progressed dissipates “any sense of authorial perspective” but I found instead it cemented just what an amazing ensemble they were – that during Tierno Bokar’s death, the three other actors onstage were so attuned that I hadn’t even noticed that it was no longer the actor who had started the scene now telling the tale. Earlier in the week I’d had the boring experience of sitting through Playing The Unplayable at Toi Whakaari, which sounded like an amazing concept – the actors exploring material on the Holocaust and trying to find ways of dramatising the impossible, of performing the unperformable – but instead was actually just a bunch of scenes that, for all the actors’ solemnity and tears in the forum afterwards, were false and over-acted and monotonous and predictable all at the same time. What really struck me about the performances in 11 and 12 was that the actors really were playing the unplayable – in just walking onto the mat, that fabled Empty Space, and being as simple and direct as possible, they were giving voice to undefinable concepts, filling the St James with such incredible ease, such precision and control, without overstraining or ever pitching for pathos or laughs. They were just being.

“I thought the show was going to be three hours long,” puzzled my best friend, looking at his watch when the 90-minute running time had expired. “No,” I said, “but it felt like three hours.” Which I did not mean as a negative – I love theatre that crams years into hours, where few people represent many, where the simplest of images can stand in for the most complex philosophical and religious and sociological ideas and ideals, and 11 and 12 contained all of that. Yes, there were moments I didn’t follow, and moments where I found myself almost having an out-of-body experience, observing my own response to the work in the third person. I wasn’t finding it monotonous but hypnotic.

Normally I’d be the first person to be yelling “That’s not a new suit, that’s his dick!” but I really don’t believe the Emperor is wearing new clothes in 11 and 12 – I think it’s the same suit he’s always been wearing but that somehow we thought he shopped at Farry’s when instead he buys all his clothes at Trade Aid.  When I was 22 I saw my first production at the reconstructed Globe – I stood in the yard through Lucy Bailey’s production of As You Like It, a play (like Peter Brook) I have no patience for, and emerged from those three hours feeling like suddenly three years of university made sense. I stumbled in a daze through the streets of Southwark thinking both “I get it!” and “That’s what I thought all along!” – the double-catharsis of seeing all the elements come together and make sense, but also them all being things you’d thought were important all along. In 11 and 12 I felt that double-catharsis again: all those years spent pondering The Empty Space and The Shifting Point and reading and re-reading about the great Peter Brook productions of the past suddenly made sense but almost more importantly, I saw all the things I’ve aspired to and strived toward in my own work and never reached effortlessly realised by a master. It made me feel proud to work in theatre. It makes me want to keep working, and it’s a long fucking time since any piece of theatre has made me feel that.

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