Edinburgh Festival / Day 18: Read my lips: no Marceau: The director Luc Bondy would like to make one thing very clear. The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other has nothing to do with mime. It is simply a play without words, as he explains to Clare Bayley

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The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is a play without words but, according to its director Luc Bondy, it is not a mime show. 'I hate that]' he exclaims. 'Mime is trop bavard - it talks too much.

'For example,' - he buttons an invisible coat with the elaborate gestures of a mime artist - 'an actor doesn't say, 'I am going to take this button, I am going to pull this lapel across, I am putting the button through the hole.' This is what mime does. No artist talks as much as Marcel Marceau.'

Bondy himself trained for two years at Jacques Lecoq's famous mime school in Paris before going to Germany to work for various theatres, including Peter Stein's Schaubuhne in Berlin, and later for Patrice Chereau at the Theatre des Amandiers near Paris.

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, currently filling the stage of the Festival Theatre, was conceived by the experimental Austrian writer Peter Handke as he sat in a cafe in an Italian piazza and watched the world go by. The play presents that world, in all its diversity, to the audience: there's a bride, a businessman, a roller-skater, a playwright - then Charlie Chaplin, Tarzan, Abraham and Moses.

From his first controversial play in 1966, Insulting the Audience (in which four performers harangued people in the audience for their conservatism), Handke has tested the boundaries of the theatre. He now believes it is no longer necessary to invent stories to impart the reality of experiences, and is dismissive of theatre, having preferred the cinema ever since his collaborations with film-makers like Wim Wenders (Handke wrote the screenplay for Wings of Desire).

Handke is not, as Bondy tactfully puts it, 'a big friend of the theatre', but Bondy is more so. Swiss-born, brought up in France, an eager, friendly man, constantly alert and observing, he has built a reputation by producing great playwrights, both classical (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere, Goethe, Schnitzler) and contemporary (Botho Strauss, Edward Bond). Working without words is a change of direction for him. 'Handke told me I must do it as if it was my piazza, to look and see what I see,' he says.

Bondy did not find it restrictive to work with 46 pages of stage directions and no dialogue; rather the opposite. 'There are a million ways for one person to go from here to there,' he explains. 'When there are no words the problem is that too many things are possible. So you find your own rules.'

The first rule of Bondy was not to allow his actors (he is using 33 of them to create over 400 characters) to resort to Method acting. 'I don't want them to act like they are making telephone calls, signalling everything. I want to make it private. Theatre can extract the hidden relationship between people. Whenever I see people, I imagine something more, I fabricate stories. For example . . .' - he looks around the hotel lounge where we are drinking coffee - 'Look] A man wearing a suit walking with a briefcase in one hand and a chandelier in the other.' And, sure enough, there he is, looking for all the world like something out of a Handke script.

Handke, who is fascinated by the difference between 'fictional reality' and 'real reality', would be delighted. He was less sure, however, of Bondy's production of The Hour, which was premiered at the Schaubuhne in Berlin earlier this year. 'He was a little disturbed because it was too dream-like,' Bondy admits. 'He saw the play as more like the world as it is, but I'm not interested in making copies of the world. That becomes boring. And some of his sentences are very literary, like a poem. I wanted to capture something of the atmosphere that Handke might have intended.'

Although German critics cited the films of Jacques Tati as an influence, The Hour probably owes less to silent film than to the wordless theatre of Mladen Materick's Tattoo, or Franz Xavier Kroetz's Request Programme, both seen in Edinburgh in the last decade. For Bondy, theatre without words is a formal experiment and not the future of the form.

One German critic accused him of adding unscripted words, though Bondy insists the actors do not speak language you can understand, they merely articulate the noise of searching for words, without finding them. 'When words are only for information, it is not good,' he says. 'But essentially there must be poetic expression in the theatre.'

For a man who so believes in the power of language on stage, working without words brought new challenges, as he candidly admits. 'During the time I was rehearsing, every night I was having nightmares, because where you're in this silent world it becomes troublant. The silence becomes a dimension in which you have to confront yourself.'

'The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other', Festival Theatre, Nicolson St (031-225 5756). 8pm. To 3 Sept

(Photograph omitted)

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