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February 4, 2008

'He's not interested... unless he's making a gesture that he's never made before'

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Cutting-edge British theatre director James Macdonald speaking about playwright Peter Handke, whose 1992 play "The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other" — 90 minutes of wordless action on stage with no spoken lines, with 450 actors passing wordlessly through a town square — begins previews at London's National Theatre this coming Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

Here's Sarah Hemming's February 2, 2008 Financial Times story about how Handke came to create the piece.

    Rendered speechless

    There is one certainty for everyone attending the National Theatre’s new production of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other: none of the cast will forget their lines. That’s not because the actors in question are peculiarly infallible. It’s because there are no lines.

    Peter Handke’s experimental drama offers 90 minutes of wordless action on stage; 450 characters pass through a town square, but not one of them speaks. There is a script, but it consists of 30 pages of intricate instructions from the Austrian playwright (translated by Meredith Oakes) about the way the figures behave as they traverse the space. “It’s like the world’s longest stage direction, really,” says James Macdonald, who is directing this, the UK’s first professional production of the 1992 play.

    No line-learning, then. And Macdonald reports that in the early stages of rehearsal, his 27 actors were going home feeling “rather guilty” that they didn’t have enough work to do. But, he adds, they each have a vast array of characters to present. This calls for lightning changes in mindset, gait and costume. “Line anxiety quickly gets replaced by costume anxiety,” he observes. The piece, written by one of Europe’s most experimental and provocative playwrights (Handke recently attracted controversy over his views on the war in former Yugoslavia), has “made everybody work on it differently to the way you normally work on a play”, says Macdonald. “So: 450 costumes, hundreds of props, 27 actors, no fixed casting at the beginning of rehearsals. It’s a backstage maelstrom at the moment.”

    In essence, the play turns people-watching into a poignant study of urban life. Characters scurry, slope or stumble across the space, absorbed in their own dilemmas.

    “Handke has said that this play was something he had wanted to write for about 15 years,” explains Macdonald. “Then he had an experience in a town square, where he sat all afternoon, just watching people. At the end of the afternoon a hearse pulled up and some people took a coffin out of a building. And he was very struck by the people who were crossing after the coffin had gone, who knew nothing about what had just happened.

    “I think initially as a spectator you are looking for rules, in the way that you always are when you watch any piece. But quite quickly it becomes mesmeric: you watch as one person follows another and changes the meaning of the one that has gone before. This is the compositional technique.”

    The articulation of human experience in language is, of course, one of the core attractions of great drama. But Handke, suggests Macdonald, makes you look at the moments that don’t and can’t reach articulation. There are exchanges between characters, but they are outside of language.

    “He’s the great experimenter of European theatre. He’s always had a mistrust of language, which is partly a postwar German thing: [he belonged to] that generation that felt they were lied to and didn’t believe in language and were looking for ways to circumvent it ... He started by questioning everything about theatre [Handke’s earliest play was the controversial 1966 Offending the Audience]. Now he’s moved beyond that to how we perceive the world.”

    Macdonald visited the playwright, now 65, in Paris, to discuss the new production. He recalls asking Handke why he had chosen to live in a particular suburb of Paris. “He said, ‘Do you see that wood over there? I can go in there and walk for an hour and a half and meet no one.’ He’s quite a solitary figure — walking is his big thing and he thinks you don’t seriously know a place unless you not only walk through it, but walk to it.”

    This disquiet over the dislocation between people and their surroundings informs The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. The play gives us a distilled version of contemporary life: people hurry on through, often oblivious to those around them. Indeed, in the 16 years since the play was written, that insularity has only increased; now people pass through the world plugged into their gadgets. “The play makes you more observant of other people,” says Macdonald. “That’s what it’s done to me and to the actors working on it. It just wakes you up to the world that you normally pass through.”

    Macdonald has an impressive record with cutting-edge drama. His most recent London production was a scintillating West End revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, but he has also directed some of Britain’s most radical contemporary playwrights: Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill. He has worked in Germany, where he says there has been a “culture of deconstruction” in the theatre since the 1960s. “Again, I think it’s to do with their postwar history – a sort of mistrust of story and mistrust of language ... People will go to the theatre to be challenged, provoked, argued with.” Despite his quiet, courteous demeanour, Macdonald seems at ease with demanding texts. He directed the premiere of Blasted, Kane’s controversial first play, and 4:48 Psychosis, her haunting final work – which offered the opposite challenge to Handke’s text, as it consisted solely of dialogue, with no stage directions or even clues as to how to assign the lines.

    “The rules are the same as for any play, it’s just the premise is a bit more extreme,” he says of 4:48 Psychosis. “But one works in the same way of discovering what the internal logic of the text is. So everything we ended up doing in Psychosis was derived from the play and built up really slowly in layers. And this [Handke’s text] has been the same in some ways – where all you have is a simple line of text or action, you really have to go through all the options that anyone can come up with and discover which ones seem to have more value.” It cannot be easy, I suggest, for Handke to keep on challenging convention. “He works hard at it,” says Macdonald. “He’s not interested in putting anything out there unless he’s making a gesture that he’s never made before. He has a huge mistrust of generality, so for him the only truth is in detail. And this play is a kind of apogee of that.”

February 4, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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