A perfect play for actors who can't remember lines

Andy McSmith is bemused by a work with no words at the National Theatre

Friday 08 February 2008 01:00

Samuel Beckett wrote a play called Act Without Words. Being wordless, it was not very long. John Cage composed a work called 4'33, which consists of the performer standing in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. Isaac Babel announced late in his career that he was specialising in the "genre of silence".

But it is to the Austrian playwright Peter Handke the prize goes for the longest work in the genre of wordlessness. The script of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is 60 pages of stage directions, with no dialogue. In the National Theatre production which opened this week, 27 performers are put through their paces for 90 word-free minutes.

The idea came to Handke in the 1980s, when he was drinking wine outside a cafe in a square in a little town near Trieste. The wine went to his brain, and all the comings and goings of people passing through the square took on a dramatic meaning.

"This is neither a particularly deep piece nor flat piece," he said of the resulting work of art. "It simply exists. Is there much to discover in it? I don't know."

And neither do I. At the risk of spoiling the story, here is how the drama begins. The curtain rises on an empty silent stage. For a moment, nothing happens, then a woman walks diagonally across the stage. Then a young man crosses the stage, then another man, and a third man, in a hurry. Next there is an old man limping. Then, wow, there is another woman, in a hurry. Then back to silent emptiness ... Oh, but I'm giving away the plot!

Contrary to what I had half expected, it was not an hour and a half of silence. There were bangs, and crashes, and people screaming, laughter on stage and in the audience, but no words.

The acting, incidentally, is very good. There is one immensely long sequence in which a queue of old men walk across stage. Just that. To keep it going, the actors must have had to do lightning costume changes backstage before rejoining the procession. They all had funny walks – not as in Monty Python's Ministry of Funny Walks sketch – but walks based on observing how old men actually move. You might say that being old and rheumatic is not funny, but the audience laughed.

After an hour and a half, a man in the row in front of me stood on his seat, walked forward on the backs of other seats, climbed on stage, and raised his arms triumphantly. When the cast took their bow, he was in the centre of the line-up, the place usually occupied by the lead performer. So, the central character in this drama is the bloke in the audience. Get it? Sorry, now I have given away the ending!

After the final curtain, instead of the silence that usually follows the completion of a drama, there was a torrent of conversation, as if everyone had to make up for all that missing dialogue. They talked in their seats, in the aisles, and on their way through the exit. It was happy chatter. Everyone had had a good time. But if Handke was trying to make some point about people's inability to communicate, he was seriously misinformed.

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