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  The Theatreguide.London Review


The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other
Lyttelton Theatre Spring 2008

As a playwright, Peter Handke writes non-linear impressionistic prose poems that may have the (il)logic of dreams but challenge the audience to surrender any attempts to follow them logically and just flow with the imagery.

The Hour We Knew takes that style to an extreme, with 100 minutes of dialogue-less action.

Handke's script is 60 pages of detailed stage directions leading, in this National Theatre production, to 27 actors playing several hundred characters, most of them lasting no longer than it takes to walk across the stage.

The scene is a town square, and what we see, in seemingly random order, are some of the people who pass through it in the course of a day. Most of them just walk across and are never seen again. An old woman hobbles, a girl roller-skates, a businesswoman searches for something in her handbag, a bored guide leads some ogling tourists. People meet and go off together or meet and go off separately.

There are a few deliberate jokes. A man finds increasingly strange things in his pockets. A street sweeper gives up when the wind keeps fighting him. A girl wearing man's clothes passes a man in drag. A joker imitates and parodies passers-by as a street mime might.

A few of the juxtapositions invite us to imagine patterns or find emotional resonances. A man collapses and dies on one side of the stage as a couple have sex on the other. Two joggers pass two bike riders who pass two cops. Some old people fall into a kind of parade across the stage, followed by a procession of doddering academics and a string of old soldiers.

In an interview printed in the programme, Handke says he believes the street might be haunted by figures from the past or from the culture that created it, and so Moses, Tarzan, Charlie Chaplin, Puss in Boots and figures out of classic paintings appear as casually as the more realistic pedestrians.

What does it all add up to? To be honest, not much.

There are moments in James Macdonald's staging when you almost expect the actors to slip from naturalistic movement into dance, in the mode of Jerome Robbins, or when the crowd scenes take a shape resembling Bill T. Jones's choreography. But for the most part this has the feel of an unedited improvisation exercise or an over-extended revue sketch.

There are perhaps 20 minutes of evocative imagery, effective humour or just interesting event sprinkled through the evening, but they are almost lost in a lot of dead air.

It is altogether appropriate for a National Theatre to stretch itself and its audience with experiments like this and like some of director Katie Mitchell's recent productions. But ticket buyers must know that they are in for a challenge more than a passive entertainment, and come prepared.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other - National 2008