Malian actor renowned for his long association with the director Peter Brook and his work in film
By Andrew Todd guardian.co.uk, Sunday 2 May 2010 18.25 BST Article history
The Malian actor Sotigui Kouyaté, who has died aged 73, was an important bridge between African and western culture for 40 years. He was best known for his collaborations with the director Peter Brook, in whose work he demonstrated an extraordinary range.
Kouyaté was one of the very few performers around whom Brook shaped particular projects at the Bouffes du Nord Theatre in Paris. Kouyaté played a resonant Prospero in a French-language Tempest (1990), bringing to the role the sensibility of a culture for whom the supernatural is a practical, everyday matter rather than distant folklore. In the Oliver Sacks-inspired play The Man Who (1993), he effectively effaced his origins, playing various patients (and the Jewish Sacks) with transparency and universality. In Qui Est Là? (1996), an improvisation based on Hamlet, he played Polonius, a gravedigger and a terrifying, uncannily lifeless ghost. In Can Themba’s The Suit (2000), he showed great comic talent, playing a very convincing drunk (although he never touched alcohol) and – in drag – an uproariously funny church woman. Perhaps the apex of his work with Brook was the creation in 2004 of the role of the Sufi mystic Tierno Bokar, in the eponymous play, based on a real-life West African prophet of tolerance and self-sacrifice.
Kouyaté was born in Bamako, Mali’s capital, to Guinean parents, who moved to Burkina Faso soon after his birth. He was the descendant of a long line of griots, a nomadic, noble caste responsible for recounting oral history and resolving conflicts as a form of artistic social duty. He continued in this role throughout his life as one of the world’s most visible African actors and a conscientious, charming witness of his people’s culture. He claimed to belong to the griots’ culture more than to any particular nation.
An extremely tall, willowy figure, Kouyaté’s career was extraordinary even before leaving for Europe. A carpenter, teacher and then professional footballer, he became captain of the Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) national team in 1966. His burgeoning activity as an actor, writer and director led to an early film role in Christian Richard’s slave-history drama The Courage of Others (1982), which brought him to the attention of Brook’s collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, who was travelling the world casting the huge Mahabharata project. Brook instantly knew he was the right actor to play Bhishma, the conduit of wisdom and memory who uses his power to choose the time of his own death to manipulate the outcome of the Mahabharata’s great war. The production was first staged at the Boulbon quarry in Avignon in 1985, and Kouyaté reprised the role in Brook’s five-hour film of the drama.
He had fathered two sons – the film-maker Dani Kouyaté and the actor and storyteller Hassane Kassi Kouyaté – before he left Africa and settled on the outskirts of Paris in 1984, starting a new family with his Swiss wife, Esther Marty-Kouyaté, who he met during the three-year world tour of the French and English versions of the Mahabharata. With her he had a daughter, Yagaré, and a son, Mabo.
Kouyaté described his working experience with Brook as being in direct, harmonious continuity with his life as a griot: he half-expected an uptight, intellectual French troupe, but found instead a multinational group where every voice was respected and concerns shared among a circle, which recalled his origins. “The word,” he once told me, “is the weapon of the griot; one must know how to transport and make a vehicle of speech … which is a difficult art, the prerequisite of which is listening. I have found this listening attitude with Peter Brook.”
Kouyaté’s flourishing film career was pursued in parallel to his work with Brook. His 18 films included collaborations with the directors Thomas Gilou (Black Mic Mac, 1986), Cheick Oumar Sissoko (La Genèse, 1999), Amos Gitai (Golem, Spirit of Exile, 1992), Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, 2002) and Kouyaté’s son Dani (Keita, Heritage of the Griot, 1994). He was the subject of the documentary film Sotigui Kouyaté, a Modern Griot by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (1996), which followed him on a journey back to Burkina Faso. In London River (his second film with Rachid Bouchareb, after 2001’s Little Senegal) he played a French Muslim father seeking his son, who is missing after the July 2005 terror attacks in London. He described the film as being “made by love”. The performance earned him the best actor prize at the 2009 Berlin film festival.
Sometimes criticised in the western press for a lack of actorly technique or artfulness, he represented a different tradition of performance – not as imitation, but as presence, embodiment and witness. Immensely handsome, immemorially ancient in appearance from his 50s and dangerously dapper when off stage or screen, Sotigui charmed a vast circle of friends and admirers, to whom he was faultlessly generous, whether with his advice, humour or hospitality. He had an unnerving habit of correctly guessing details of one’s state of mind and recent movements when encountered.
An important part of his artistic legacy is the Mandéka International Theatre, which he co-founded in 1997 in Bamako, with the aim of producing and radiating Malian theatre. He is survived by Esther and his four children.
Peter Brook writes: Sotigui was, for all of us who knew him, who worked with him and who became close to him, an absolutely unique person, incomparable with anybody of the past or present, in the same way that Shakespeare and Mozart were their own individual human categories, at once remarkable and universal, uncanny and familiar.
I first saw him in a photograph that Marie-Hélène Estienne showed me: he was standing next to a tree, and he had an extraordinarily tree-like character himself, both physically and personally. He was inseparable from his own African soil, rooted in its social, cultural, family and spiritual structures and traditions. He was deeply animist in the sense that he saw and sensed, as a matter of course, the continuity between the visible and invisible worlds, between inner spirit and external tradition.
At the same time, when he was in the context of the west, he was totally open to the world around him, seeing it clearly in all its good and bad qualities, but without ever judging or becoming hostile. Like a tree, he was unbending in his core, but reaching out, responsive, quivering in reaction to every fine current with which he came into contact.
As an actor he was possessed of a deep sense of meaning and an absolutely natural response; his heart and mind had a transparent connection to his body, his muscles, face and fingers, allowing him an organic expression devoid of applied skill – a condition of emptiness and responsiveness which many western actors strive for years to attain, but which to him came perfectly naturally.
• Sotigui Kouyaté, actor and director, born 19 July 1936; died 17 April 2010