11 and 12, directed by Peter Brook, is a 100-minute meditation on religious tolerance. The title refers to an uncertainty that arose in French colonial Africa over the correct number of times a particular prayer should be recited. The confusion originally came about after a simple misunderstanding in a single mosque: a shek arrived late; his students did not wish to embarrass him so they recited the prayer a twelfth time to cover his entrance.
It is chilling to see how a matter of courtesy becomes twisted and exploited to justify unspeakable acts of aggression and suppression in an artificial war between The 11 and The 12. So much hatred and violence over such a small dispute between men who follow the same faith sounds crazy but go to any city derby football match and you will see worse.
The story is told by an all male interational cast on a sand-strewn stage and expertly accompanied at all times by a lone musician sitting quietly in the midst of his array of instruments. Furniture is at a minimum and much is made of costume, clever lighting, and a giant tarpaulin in conjuring the various locations in Africa and later in France.
The great strength of the piece is somehow also its undoing: the quiet simplicity and space Peter Brook makes available to the versatile ensemble allow them to relate the seemingly parochial 11 and 12 dispute to all the violent intolerance that besets our 21st century but, in the process, it is hard to care too much about what is actually happening on the stage. It is a bit like staring out of the window on a moving train: very soon you stop seeing the scenery and start thinking of other things.
11 and 12 is at the Barbican Theatre until 27th February.