Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Hour When We Knew Nothing of Each Other

Written for

If nothing else, the National’s latest offering is guaranteed to divide opinion. Peter Handke’s 1992 play lasts for an hour and a half, during which not a recognisable word is spoken. There are 450 characters, played by a company of 27, and no real narrative in any conventional sense of the word.

So what happens instead? Essentially, people just keep crossing the stage. Hildegard Bechtler’s set beautifully conjures the sense of a city square with an untidy mixture of old and new buildings, rendered as simplified pale blocks. Subtle shifts in the lighting allow these to suggest modern London, Oxford, Europe, America and the Middle East, at varying points in time - domed building variously evokes St Paul’s Cathedral, Brasenose College and old Jerusalem.

Through this space, the people come and go. The first few - conventionally dressed modern types, such as you’d see in modern London - just walk through. A slightly giddy (not to mention luminary-packed) press-night crowd, possibly apprehensive about the prospect of spending an hour and a half without plot or dialogue, titter nervously. After a few more people have crossed the stage, it does start to be genuinely funny. There’s a sense of complicity, of Handke and director James MacDonald teasing the audience with the possibility that nothing more than this will happen for the entire duration. And the sense of an audience finding its feet and wondering whether it will enjoy that, if it turns out to be the case. As it turns out, Handke is not averse to making the thing funny. As the sequences of characters crossing the stage continue, clearly comic and absurd figures emerge. Though wordless, there is interaction - a profusion of it - everything from lust to rage, as well as a good deal of the more commonplace irritations of walking round a city. Jason Thorpe recurs as a yellow tank-topped clown figure, mimicking other characters, following them around as they try to fulfil their jobs.

Gradually, a sense of progression builds. Though largely opaque, the piece is clearly up to something. That’s not to say there’s a definite hidden meaning which audiences are being asked to crack, but nonetheless, there appears to be some conscious choice behind the particular events that unfold - while deliberately seeming random. The juxtapositions of events start to take on associations. There are points where the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a particularly oblique version of The Fast Show, while elsewhere the surrealism of Magritte. Toward the end, the thing builds into a sudden apparent apocalypse. At another point, a group of soldiers are succeeded by a number of women in Islamic dress. More commonly, though, it is the small interactions and failures of communication that are most interesting - suggesting one theme here is the remarkable way that vast numbers of people can live together in cities while pretending that they are virtually alone.

Granted, the piece is being sold on somewhat daunting premises, but in fact it reminds us that theatre can easily survive without words or narrative through-lines. Anyone with the capacity to watch either contemporary dance, or, for that matter, an orchestra playing a symphony, will have no trouble sitting through this; although it is fair to say that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. For me, it possibly outstays its welcome by about quarter of an hour, but, by and large, it is a rewarding experience and another testament to the sheer range and imagination of Nicholas Hytner’s artistic directorship of the National.


Andrew Field said...

Hmmm... yes, Well done on Nick Hytner and the director for putting it on and all that but really I felt a lot of the decisions made seem to suggest a real contempt for the audience.

It's interesting you should mention the fast show as that's exactly what I felt at certain points. That rather than offering a series of teasing possibilities, a myriad of contradictory and complementary ontologies on the point of blooming into actual narratives, it scuppered itself by playing it for laughs, producing a series of closed (completed) sketches.

Don't get me wrong there were points of absolute brilliance (the moment of ever-so-slight beauty when with the ladder at the beginning or towards the end when the figures starting to loom out of the auditorium) but I thought there was something profoundly awkward about it, especially the unbearable Jason Thorpe who's presence for me irreprably damaged the courageous purity of the entire piece. As if someone had spent hours carefully sewing together this delicate patchwork of almost-narratives, only to stick a Garfield cartoon on the top for fear of the audience not sticking with it.

I'd be interested to know about Handkes' original script - how much was lost or gained in translation. Whether the troublems I had with it were of his doing or somebody elses'.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Troublems - I like that.

I don't think there's any point in imposing standards of conceptual purity or coherence-towards-a-particular-end on this piece any more than on ordinary, outside-the-theatre people-watching. Although many of my responses were the same as Andrew H's (I found myself, an hour or so in, remembering the line from "Buffy" about needing to know the plural of "apocalypse"), I found it relatively easy - after passing through "the wall" at around 35 minutes or so - to settle into a mode of watching that was complaisant without being passive. Jason Thorpe is a component of the whole, not a torpedo :-)

Andrew Haydon said...

Andy, yes, I was curious about the translation/original, but then, when something's only stage directions, how many liberties is a director likely to take (forthcoming blog about the concept of "taking liberties" soon)?

I'm not sure if it was "played for laughs" was much as open to them, and sometimes, maybe even *subjected* to them. I didn't mind Jason Thorpe half as much as you and the Whingers seemed to.

Andrew Field said...

"I don't think there's any point in imposing standards of conceptual purity or coherence-towards-a-particular-end on this piece any more than on ordinary, outside-the-theatre people-watching."

Have to disagree. I thought it very self-consciously foregrounded the fact that its characters were existing in a series of discrete ontological worlds. Or in simpler terms, it wasn't simply that the characters were wandering lonely as clouds, almost every time someone entered we saw the beginning of a new world (or the beginning of a new play).

I felt like what I enjoyed (nay, loved) about it was its very knowing understanding of theatre as a sign-system. Of the fact that someone walking on stage isn't just someone walking on stage, they are the first signifier of a forthcoming narrative. Surely the perfect example would be the wonderful parade of old men in the middle of the show - a magnificent, (at time hilarious, at times incredibly moving) series of openings that each with one subtle costume change suggested an entirely different narrative.

That for me is what the show did brilliantly at times. It seemed to wear its Lyotard on its sleeve (boom... world's worst pun ever) - an almost infinite number of potential narratives that the audience suddenly realised they already knew. And once you've deconstructed this infinte complex of narratives, histories etc what are you left with - panic at points, hysteria certainly but also the potential for human kindness and affection.

Anyway, that's just to say Handke can say what he likes about the vacuum of meaning but I think its a very knowing vacuum. It's a conscious attempt to undermine meaning, to summon the spectres of the meta-narratives that govern our lives only to destroy them.

And Jason Thorpe was a irritating as hell.

Simon Thomas said...

I might be able to shed some light on Handke’s text. I know the play well from a translation other than the one used at the National but I don’t think it makes a tremendous amount of difference which you follow. This does make the idea of a new translation a bit odd as there are perfectly goods ones in existence (and the audience doesn’t get to see or hear what’s written). Could be an issue of rights or something. It’s certainly been a talking point, so has marketing value.

Having re-read the script after seeing the production, I can say that the National do follow the text closely and they interpret some of Handke’s directions brilliantly. There’s quite a lot in the text which is difficult or impossible to perform. Take for example: “No howling of cats, no burping from a speaker, no sudden honking of horns, neither the barking of dogs erupting in an alley”. How can you produce a negative? This is typical Handke and points to the literary nature of the text. He does go on to say of these “directions”: “is it someone aping these sounds?”, so there’s a clue.

I wouldn’t say that the director has “taken liberties” although there is inevitably interpretation involved.

The fool or idiot is a figure that crops up quite a lot in Handke’s novels and plays, as it does in quite a lot of, particularly Russian, literature. It often has holy overtones, although in this production they went for more of a clown figure. Certainly, Handke specifies the mimicking, although they extended it somewhat (particularly in the airline sequence).

I think your point is a good one about anyone who enjoys contemporary dance or orchestral music should get it. Like Beckett, it has a musical structure, in this case expressed in patterns of movement and image. I don’t understand why people can accept abstraction in dance or music but not in text.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

My recollections of the Luc Bondy production that came to Edinburgh in 1994 are that it was both visually and temperamentally much more colourful than the National's version. But difference isn't necessarily infidelity.

Andy F, I'm sorry, but I can't grasp the two comments under your name as being components of the same opinion! ...but difference isn't necessarily infidelity :-)