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Review Round-up: The Hour of Reckoning for NT?

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The National Theatre’s fast, physical and dialogue-free new play, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, was conceived twenty years ago by experimental Austrian dramatist Peter Handke as he sat in a street café in Paris watching the crowds pass him by. The wordless production is set in a town square and features 450 characters, portrayed by 27 actors, busily going about their daily lives. Handke’s experimental piece was first seen in 1992 and has now been revived by the NT. It is running in the Lyttleton Theatre until April 2008.

The last time the NT staged a Peter Handke production was twenty years ago when The Long Way Round achieved much critical success. Nearly twenty years later, this unusual play, directed by James Macdonald, features business people, 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, Abraham and Isaac, a family of refugees and Papageno amoung other characters.

The production features designs by Hildegard Bechtler, costumes by Moritz Junge and lighting from Jean Kalman. Among the large cast Susannah Fielding and Daniel Hawksford travel to the Lyttleton from the NT’s Olivier Theatre and where they are still currently appearing as Hero and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.

Critics found it difficult to find a point to this wordless play which made for “an entrancing evening” that was strangely full of “puckish pointlessness”. While it was generally agreed that the play was “a mesmerising, captivating delight”, it was also noted that there was “no real shape or beauty to the show”. Some critics felt that the experience left little impression and would have been “far more interesting if it was less afraid of being boring”, while others delighted in an “unusual, often striking, sometimes funny piece”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “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 … 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.”
    • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph – “It's faintly impossible to cram into one review the fleeting impressions that director James Macdonald and his team propel your way over the course of 100 minutes (the title is surprisingly lacking in Teutonic precision). What one can say straightaway is that the piece actually bears only an intermittent correspondence to the normal activity you'd find in a public space. This is a manifestly theatrical act of surveillance, and, while that means there's never a dull moment, credibility feels at times pointlessly compromised … If this great jigsaw of activity slots into a poignant pattern at any point, it's at the moment when a crazy-acting tramp, shrouded in old coats, keels over dead. He's soon carted off, to the bemusement of the oddball who's been following him and the erotic arousal of a bystander couple. In the midst of life, Handke suggests, there's always the pathos of our solitude - of dying unknown. There's also, thanks to his interventions, a fair bit of pretension, too. This is a city built as much upon imagination as close observation and absorbed as I was by the freakish procession, impressed as I was by the logistical verve of it all, the show would be far more interesting if it was less afraid of being boring.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars)- “The good news is that James Macdonald’s slick, smart and lavish version of Peter Handke’s extraordinary piece is actually a mesmerising, captivating delight. On paper, it shouldn¹t work. The script consists entirely of stage directions, instructing an endless parade of characters to criss- cross the set. They never talk, most of them appear for a matter of seconds, and only a tiny minority interact with each other. Handke got the idea from watching passers-by in a busy square, which raises the question: why not just sit in a square ourselves? But it turns out to be brilliantly inventive. The hugely talented company go through a tireless series of quick-changes to come on as character after character, each in a mini-sketch hinting at a life we can only guess at. Some of the sketches are banal, some are touching, others are comic and others still are absurd. Since there is no connection between any of them, we forget the last one as soon as the next one appears. But the brain seems to be satisfied with this ever-changing visual novelty. That¹s why children sit quietly in front of the TV or we can stare for hours into a fire. Meaning is unimportant. The only duff part of the play is a section towards the end where the cast gather in a screaming, shuddering tableau. It¹s clearly meant to signify something, but it¹s obscure and heavy-handed, and strikingly boring compared with everything else. It breaks the spell for a while, but otherwise this is an entrancing evening ¬ and all the more so because it sounds so utterly unlikely.”
    • Susannah Clapp in the The Observer – “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is a theatrical dare on the part of Peter Handke - the experimental Austrian dramatist, and collaborator with Wim Wenders, whose works include Offending the Audience … In James Macdonald's wonderfully detailed production you see true bits of human behaviour that have never been put on stage before: these strangers duck and dive around each other like fish in the ocean or birds in the sky. You also see the worst sides of the avant-garde: Handke may want to turn a traditional play inside out, and resist the idea of meaning, but he chucks in some corny anti-meaning bits: mingling amid the citizens are Abraham and Isaac, Puss in Boots and Papageno; towards the end there's a very clunky coup. Macdonald, who specialises in exquisite productions of skinny works, has reached his apogee here. He's directed a fascinating evening, which doesn't make a point.
    • Paul Taylor in the The Independent (three stars) - " Despite the publicity linking this show to art that uses the power of silence (Beckett, Cage et al), Handke's piece has an intricate soundscape (wind-chimes, airplane noises, thunder), and the characters groan, scream, laugh, gibber. Not one of them – in a roll-call that impishly includes fictional and mythic figures such as Tarzan, a birdcage-toting Papageno, and Abraham and Isaac, as well as transvestites, soldiers, women in burqas, and an old man who balances a wooden cradle on his head – uses silence as a shield or weapon. They just don't happen to speak. Absurdist celebration of human diversity? Exploration of what's left when speech is removed? For all that James Macdonald's fluent production vividly underscores the mood swings, from individualist eccentricity to collective apocalyptic alarm, the show comes across principally as a monumental tease. It isn't the equivalent of people-watching in the foyer, because it depends on a pronounced theatrical self-consciousness. It plays with the idea of an audience stuck in front of a fixed theatrical frame. You take pleasure, say, in the contrast between the doddering state of the male crocks who keep looping back on with different identities (ancient dons, old soldiers) and the agility that must be needed backstage to make the lightning costume changes. Indeed, a Noises Off-style reverse look at these proceedings might prove rather more entertaining, tense and, well, talkative ("Where did I put Moses' tablets of stone?"). Droll touches, like the chap who goes round cheekily copying the others, seem intended as charming admissions of puckish pointlessness. Hard on the feet for the performers, the piece feels, if you'll forgive the pun, footling.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (three stars)-“Handke conceived the play in a piazza near Trieste. But did someone sneak hallucinogens into his wine? Fantasy figures appear among the hurly-burly: Tarzan, Chaplin, Puss in Boots, Mozart’s Papageno, an Old Testament prophet, a gowned figure I thought was Oedipus until he regained his sight and kicked a girl in the bottom. But only once do things seem significant rather than strange; and that’s when the odd offstage sound (birds, bells, traffic) escalates into an unholy hubbub that seems to bode the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The people stop, shake, cluster in alarm. Crisis has brought them together, as perhaps one day it will us. But the moment passes and everyday offhandedness reasserts itself, leaving me with a mix of feelings. Yes, this is an unusual, often striking, sometimes funny piece. Yes, it sent me from the theatre looking harder at the silent passers-by. But couldn’t Handke have cut a score or so characters and moments – or at least explored them a bit more deeply?”

      - by Kate Jackson

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