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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre (Lyttelton)

By Matt Wolf

  PH:Neil Libbert

All of human life is there - or is it? - in The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other , Peter Handke's jeu d'esprit that may be about nothing more than its admittedly unusual concept. Is there much to discover in it? I don't know, Handke is quoted as saying in the program of its National Theatre premiere, which unfolds across not an hour but closer to 100 minutes of quite literal human traffic: truth in advertising would immediately mandate a change to the title. And what do you come away with? A sense of having paid due homage to a theatrical experiment that runs directly counter to the work of Handke's early days, where a playwright who in this instance is entirely wordless was prone to offering up verbal assaults on his public. (Offending the Audience has just been revived Off Broadway, for those who want to play compare and contrast.) For my part, I only checked my watch once, was more or less engaged throughout, and had to admire the precision of a 27-strong cast who in effect have to enact the choreographic patterns of a script that in this case has been translated by Meredith Oakes. (Quite what that amounted to in this context is anyone's guess.) But I'm sure I'm not alone in gently wishing that the whole had amounted to more than the sum of its sometimes funny, sometimes fearsome parts. For all that Hour .... tilts toward the apocalyptic - gathering winds, lowering clouds and all - there's considerably more sense of imminent catastrophe amid the bellicose comedy of the previous night's opening, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, than exists to be found amid a deliberately artificial construct that doesn't so much catch life on the wing as structure it for our bemused consumption.

Under James Macdonald's direction, one is initially drawn to just how underpopulated this square seems to be, as you might expect from a public space that in Hildegard Bechtler's design looks like what might have resulted if Giorgio Morandi had designed Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Sara Stewart makes the first of many distinctive appearances in a blue-jeaned skirt and boots, while Mark Hadfield emerges into view wearing Wellington boots and scattering what would appear to be confetti. Before long, they have been replaced in a ceasless sequence of images by a crying woman, two giggly girls, and a skateboarder desperate at all sorts to seem cool - oh, and a football supporter clearly disconsolate at the day's proceedings. Where is it all headed? Away from realism would seem to be one answer, though the absence of the usual superabundance of cell phones tips us off to the fact that documentary verisimilitude was never the aim. Jason Thorpe appears repeatedly in a yellow vest, alternately mocking and mimicking the people he is with like some sort of mad Zelig-like figure, and then suddenly along come a quintet of airline employees in full flight crew regalia - a witty image that also followed the vexed departure from the auditorium of the woman seated in front of me, much to the clear chagrin of her husband who sat the show out. (Hers was the lone walkout, at least from where I was seated.)

It's not so much that all human life is here as it is that Handke collapses the routine and the archetypal, the mythic and the mundane. Mozart's Papageno comes jauntily into view, for no discernible reason, as do Moses, Tarzan, and all walks of society, from royalty to the indigent, gladiators to a supremely elegant woman (Susan Engel) laden with shopping bags from the town's very best shops. There is the odd hint of a playlet here and there in the two businesswomen who interrupt their clearly busy da


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