The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other @ Lyttelton Theatre, London

cast list
Susan Brown
Jessie Burton
Pip Carter
Paul Chesterton
Lisa Dillon
Callum Dixon
Noma Dumezweni
Susan Engel
Susannah Fielding
Mark Hadfield
Amy Hall
Daniel Hawksford
Tom Hickey
Richard Hope
Mairead McKinley
Nick Malinowski
Shereen Martineau
Justine Mitchell
Daniel Poyser
Adrian Schiller
Amit Shah
Sara Stewart
Giles Terera
Jason Thorpe
Harry Towb
Simon Wilson
Sarah Woodward

directed by
James Macdonald
“The stage is an open square in bright light. It begins with someone running across at speed. Then another, from the opposite direction, the same way.” So opens Peter Handke’s wordless drama and from this starting point characters stream, fall, lope, trot, bounce, stumble, cartwheel, skip, herd, saunter and hobble across the acting space for 95 minutes.

The overall image is extraordinary, made more so by the minute detail of illusion and allusion that makes up this intricate tapestry of people in motion. Whether or not there is “meaning” in it all, it’s best not to try and rationalise Handke’s methods. Sit back and drink in the visual poetry; this is liquid gold flowing before your eyes.

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is logistically incredibly difficult to pull off and the joy of the National’s production is the resources they can throw at it. This is no student production cobbled together and self-indulgently pleasing the actors more than the audience, although there has been talk of walk-outs during the preview period. Par for the course with a Handke play but don’t let that put you off.

The production by James Macdonald and his team is beautifully executed, every detail immaculately observed, and any danger of earnestness dispersed with comedy. Even so, there’s a prosaic feel to the first part of the play. After an hour, you begin to wonder how many different ways there are of crossing a stage. But then an alchemy takes place and from the stuff of everyday life, theatrical gold is spun. The great central climax, with everyone onstage, is spell-binding, everything then lapsing into a dream-like coda. And music is an apt description, with themes stated, re-stated and repeated with variation.

Amongst the universe of nondescript persons, there are some memorable cameos: the yellow-jumpered Idiot (a key figure for Handke) who mimics and clowns, the slinky beauty who eyed me (and every other man) personally, the man and his puppet double who dies before our eyes, followed immediately by a couple having sex, then death passing by in a litter, the high-noon hero who transforms himself like quicksilver. There’s something of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days in the businessman who empties his pockets of a treasure trove of mostly useless objects only to return them all in reverse order before exiting.

The characters from mythology or fiction are most successful: Moses with a tablet of stone, Abraham and Isaac, Puss in Boots, a hunter with Snow White’s heart in a jar, Tarzan, Papageno in feathers then shells. Aeneas’s slow slow progress across the front with his aged father on his back, a burning scroll in his hand, is particularly striking. The more wayward the imagery, the more poetic and dramatically satisfying, although it needs all the mundane coming and going to set these jewels off.

As I left the National Theatre and made my way back to Waterloo, youths banged about noisily on skateboards, joggers came pounding past, a film crew carrying their equipment crossed my path. Then darkness fell on the South Bank.

Read our profile of Peter Handke here

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