27 actors, 450 characters (and as many costume changes), 1 Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other but 95 minutes actual duration and a total of 0 words. All this = quite something. It takes a brave director and theatre to stage a play that runs for an hour and a half with absolutely no dialogue. But the National has done just that, bringing Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other to the Lyttelton stage and by doing so brought to life something uniquely simple, extremely watchable, unexpectedly funny and strangely moving, demonstrating that the possibilities of theatre in firing up the imagination are truly limitless
The protagonist in this production, as odd as it may seem, is the location: a town square – the only thing in the play that is not transient or fleeting in nature. Ever-present it allows us to watch flashes of characters’ lives as they pass through the space, rarely taking more than 30 seconds to do so. The large ensemble cast work hard, providing an eclectic set of characters and creating a world that is equally unsettling and moving, at times downright absurd and constantly surprising. As a taster, here are a few of the figures who emerged in order only to disappear soon after: a particularly unenthusiastic tour guide and his group of tourists, two old women, a geriatric sheriff, cross-dressers, Tarzan swinging from his vine, a drunk man with a propensity to howl, street cleaners, a film crew, firemen, a businessman and, of course, Puss in Boots. Walking, running, sliding down ropes, crawling or on roller blades this production presents us with characters from all walks of life, quite literally, as well as throwing in a few mythic characters for good measure, all somehow connected for a few seconds through proximity alone. And that is just the beginning. In some ways this is just like people watching, in the endless parade of vivid characters we see a kaleidoscopic view of all aspects of human life.
The humour is the real jewel of this production, at times it descends into pure hilarity and the biggest challenge was not getting the giggles during scenes that could be taken straight out of Monty Python, as when Moses makes an appearance with his tablets or when a pensioner starts a stick-fight with an elderly walking-party. With physical performances, touches of the slapstick and clowning and a few Mr Bean-like caricatures, the audience was chuckling throughout but despite the theatrical flourishes this is a recognisable world-view of urban life and the community we create around ourselves, the need for human interaction and the weaknesses and fears we show despite ourselves - all demonstrated with no need for recourse to language. There is a sense of well timed possibilities and indeed with the overwhelming number of costume changes a clockwork precision must have been necessary off stage, the Swiss themselves could not have done it better. This is a truly collective endeavour and Jean Kalman’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound are key to creating atmosphere in this world without language. The lighting is particularly brilliant (no pun intended), despite the number of positions and actors involved they were all constantly well illuminated yet the changes were so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible allowing for various magical transformations.
The look of it all seemed quite painterly, the passing shadow of a businessman eating an apple reminded me of Magritte’s Son of Man and much like Magritte, Handke explores the mysteries lurking in the unexpected juxtaposition of everyday things, involving the viewer in a self-induced disorientation and animating the inanimate (such as a remote control car). Also like Magritte this is a piece of art to be looked at, not into – Handke asks us to avoid reading too deeply into things, the interpretation is a denial of the mystery involved.
Even as a bit of literary snob, I found myself at once moved and exhilarated by this epic mime, this is theatre that sets the imagination alight. Once I suspended my disbelief, in amongst the quirky characters I found real moments of humanity and as Handke is quoted in the programme “every little thing became significant – without being symbolic.” What Handke provides so well is the beginning of stories and the audience is left to fill in the dotted lines, using our imagination to create storylines and plots. Indeed, this is a deeply personal experience, reminding me of early childhood imaginings – the characters created and their mini-dramas seemed dredged up from my subconscious. Also similar to over-imaginative childhood visualisations there is something quite eerie and potentially frightening in places. My only qualm is that it was perhaps twenty minutes too long, the climax - complete with a sort of Godzilla (or in today’s terms Cloverfield) feel to it took away from the simplicity of the rest of the piece. Luckily a burning effigy picked things up again and I never had the time to get bored. A word of warning however, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, indeed a woman behind me rather loudly whispered “this is unbearably long” towards the middle of the production. Personally though, I found great pleasure in this bizzarely hypnotising portrait of the random oddities of everyday life and I have a feeling that my daily commute will never be the same again.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Fluent production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Engrossing...Even as a committed text junkie, I find myself moved and exhilarated by this extraordinary piece of epic mime." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A waste of time."DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Absorbed...Impressed." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "This is an unusual, often striking, sometimes funny piece."
Production photos by Neil Libbert