Part of the package at the National Theatre these days is a sop to experimentalism, or the old European avant garde, and James Macdonald’s banal and unsexy production of a wordless Peter Handke street scenario – a piece seen at the Edinburgh Festival of 1994 in a stunningly beautiful production by Luc Bondy for the Berlin Schaubuhne – is a good example of this strand in the policy.
The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other came to Handke as he sat whiling away an afternoon in a pavement cafe in Trieste. “I got into a state of real observation,” he says (the Viennese writer is now 65 and living in Paris), “perhaps this was helped along a bit by the wine. Every little thing became significant, without being symbolic.”
Whereas Bondy’s production was a killer piece of precise, sensual choreography, a of mixture of Jacques Tati and Pina Bausch, set in an abstract white-walled desert flecked with telegraph poles, Macdonald and his designer Hildegard Bechtler – using a new translation of the stage directions by Meredith Oakes – have gone for something more rooted in urban reality, less surreal, occasionally funny but, in the end, feeble.
The setting is a town square, predominantly grey, with three main architectural styles pushing up against each other: the inner-city grunge of utilitarian modernism; a walled “old city” segment with hints of De Chirico’s dreamscapes and a religious dome; and a great white slab in the style of Rachel Whiteread’s Jewish monument in Vienna.
The sky changes colour from grey to ochre in Jean Kalman’s arbitrary lighting design, the wind sends rubbish flying through the streets, the quotidian hubbub of people scurrying about with their private lives zipped up inside is overshadowed by some apocalyptic wailing and gnashing of teeth. Here comes Aeneas bearing his father Anchises on his back from burning Troy, there goes Abraham with a dagger and a recalcitrant Isaac.
Mostly, though, the non-stop bustle – surely far too non-stop and consecutive for a real town square – is that of tourists, skateboarders, postmen, joggers, a wedding party, an aircraft crew, as well as melancholy individuals with personal problems. Queues are formed, processions devised and certain actors – madcap Tom Hickey, languorous Sara Stewart, inventive Mark Hadfield, dignified Susan Engel, earthen Susan Brown, delightful Giles Terera, zany Adrian Schiller, serene Sarah Woodward – recur like welcome faces at a chaotic party.
Twenty-seven actors play 450 characters in ninety minutes! Concentration levels are high. But there’s no real shape or beauty to the show, no wildness or danger. Towards the end, a scruffy plant steps over five rows of the stalls and triumphantly takes the stage. So what, we all shrugged. Bring on the dancing girls.