THEATRE / The strong, silent type: Richard Loup-Nolan on The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The inspiration for Peter Handke's people-watching extravaganza is said to have come to him while sitting outside an Italian cafe. In the new Berlin Schaubuhne production, the director Luc Bondy and the designer Gilles Aillaud seem to have taken their cue from the more fantastical elements of Handke's elaborate, 64-page text of pure stage directions (not a word is spoken for its entire 100-minute duration) and, instead of the suggested urban square, they have dreamt up an ambiguous seaside space for the 33-strong cast to play on.

Aillaud's design rings clear North African Mediterranean bells. A whitewashed cube of a house sits on one side, an abandoned 2CV on the other; centre- stage is taken by a kitschy statue of the Egyptian dog- god Anubis; and overhead drifts a heavenly expanse of powder-blue sky.

The atmosphere of dreamy unreality evoked proves the perfect, versatile environment for Bondy and Handke's ludic purposes. Handke may have written a play with no plot, no traditional characters and no dialogue but his is no puritanical, Teutonic mission. The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is rather an exercise in delight, Bondy liberating the soul of Handke's poetic text with the touch of a true theatrical epicure.

The Hour falls into sequences, in which the cast adopt hundreds of different identities. The scenes / sequences are wiped on and off by lighting changes and an enormous, sandy ripple of a curtain.

There are obvious filmic analogies for this experience. On a superficial level, it's like one of those washing- machine commercials - with a never-ending sequence of people coming in and out of frame. Altman, Tati and Keaton are cinematic notables one could invoke, but The Hour is in no way derivative. His mock- Mediterranean set allows Bondy to fully exploit the bizarreries of a world of constantly colliding cultures.

Handke's vision is extraordinarily fertile, mixing surreal slapstick, pure visual poetry, tragedy, macabre comedy and pathos. The almost ceaseless enactment of these events on stage establishes, in Bondy's hands, a miraculous rhythm with its own inexorable logic.

The criss-crossings, collisions and encounters show humanity in perpetual molecular movement, people carrying their personal, sharply individuated worlds around with them, so that the location of Bondy's set is called into question. Is it a demented Hollywood backlot, is it heaven even? Wherever it is, human dignity is shown to be a very wobbly tray in a waiter's hand, always at the mercy of volatile objects and elements.

Deeply affecting (and all the more so for being so funny), The Hour is an inspiring European masterwork, of the kind that is all too rarely available to audiences in this country.