The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other

Posted on: 31 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green experiences a wordless drama at the National Theatre.

Words are the lifeblood of theatre, illuminating character and fuelling the drama. Theatre is in essence a spoken medium - unlike cinema which is a visual one, in which dialogue can play an important though not overriding part.

So it was with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation that I went to see experimental Austrian dramatist Peter Handke's latest work The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other (NT's Lyttleton auditorium) which dispenses with dialogue altogether.

Some 450 characters played by 25 actors attempt to bring everyday dramas to life. On a grey, empty town square a figure darts across, then another and another - businesspeople, roller-bladers, a cowboy, several street-sweepers, a half-dressed bride, a film crew, a line of old men, a tourist, a beauty in a mirrored dress, a family of refugees, a parade of military veterans, and mixing among them all are the biblical figures of Abraham and Isaac - the bizarre and the humdrum, fleetingly connected by proximity alone but never making actual contact.

Here Handke turns the conventions of theatre on their head but, while providing a fitfully amusing critique of social behaviour, fails to provide much in the way of character or drama. Although to be fair, at one point somebody suddenly falls to the ground and dies and is carried away, only to be replaced by merry wanderers who know nothing of what has just happened.

In James MacDonald's immaculately detailed production the well drilled NT ensemble valiantly try to lend individuality and conviction to the hundreds of people who flit in and out of view, but seem to be facing an uphill battle. Although no words are actually spoken occasional noise, church bells, thunder and snatches of music break the silence.

The production lasts just over one and a half hours but I feel this is too long for what is essentially a series of snapshots of human behaviour. If it had been condensed to just one hour as the title suggests it would have been much tighter and more effective.

The final message Handke seems to provide is one of redemption in an endangered world.

Plays in repertory until 12th April 2008.

Laurence Green

Booking Information

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