It’s lunchtime on Lothian Road, and the people who make up the everyday community of one of Edinburgh’s main thoroughfares are out in force. Grinning charity collectors are dotted about the area close to the row of display boards advertising shows for the Usher Hall and the Lyceum and Traverse theatres. They go largely ignored by the passers-by hurrying in both directions, but in a natural stage area, the occasional person stops, drawn in by the charity collectors’ well-meaning spiel.
On the corner of Grindlay Street, a gaggle of teenage girls in tracksuit bottoms are stretching their legs in the air, as if they’ve either just been to or are en route to a dance class. Opposite the Lyceum, the doors of what was once the student-friendly Citrus nightclub are wide open, revealing a husk of a place about to be converted into something more corporate by the group of noisy builders barging in and out of the club.
It’s not hard to imagine such everyday incidents forming part of the Lyceum’s epic production of Peter Handke’s wordless play, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, which opens tonight for a brief run as the final show of the theatre’s 2017/18 season. It is a play, after all, that was born of the veteran Austrian playwright’s own adventures in people-watching while settled in a café in Trieste over a bottle of wine.
The result features 450 characters, who move across the town square depicted in the play without uttering a line. Out of this comes a sketchbook portrayal of human behaviour featuring a society of people occupying their own space and brought fleetingly to life to have their moment in the sun, or whatever else the weather might be doing that day.
In Edinburgh, the play will be performed by a community cast of more than ninety performers under the guidance of the show’s co-directors, Wils Wilson and Janice Parker. Wilson has previously directed Lyceum artistic director David Greig’s border-ballad based play, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Karine Polwart’s music theatre show, Wind Resistance, and was at the Lyceum in October 2017 overseeing the company’s production of Bridget Bolland’s neglected play, Cockpit.
Parker is the Herald Angel award winning choreographer who has created a huge body of work over almost two decades, latterly with her own company, Janice Parker Projects. While neither a dance show or mime, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other nevertheless requires meticulous timing at every level.
“I loved the idea of the real and non-real living together,” says Wilson, “and it seemed to me very much like my own experience of the world. When you do sit and watch the world go by, you see what’s really there, but your brain is also drifting off and making connections with your own past, things you’ve seen or read, and other things that have meant a lot to you.
“The play has this mixture of absolutely real things alongside mysterious dreamlike things which you feel are very symbolic and meaningful, but the meaning is really open. Then there’s a whole other layer of mythological figures who are very recognisable from a pool of stories which are shared, and there’s another layer still of more sinister moments.
“That seemed to me more like the way that people’s brains work than realism, because we’re always making connections, remembering or replaying moments from our past, or having intrusive thoughts. That’s what the brain’s like all the time. We’re all having a deep moment, and that’s what then becomes quite overwhelming about it.”
There’s a specific word for this experience which somebody tweeted the other day, Wilson says, but for now, at least, her brain has blanked it out.
“It’s the moment when you suddenly realise that everyone in the world has as deep and complex an emotional life as you do, and everyone is existing in the moment in that way.”
Wilson remembers poet and playwright Jackie Kay telling her that she’d have moments like that sometimes while stuck in traffic. She’d suddenly think of all the other people across the world who were stuck at traffic lights exactly like her at exactly the same time.
“You realise you have this common humanity with people,” says Wilson, “and yet you know nothing about them.”
Handke’s play was last seen in Edinburgh in 1994, when the Berlin-based Schaubuhne Theatre brought the original production by Swiss-born director Luc Bondy to the Festival Theatre with a cast of thirty-three. In 2008, a new translation by Australian playwright Meredith Oakes was seen at the National Theatre in London in a production by by James Macdonald featuring twenty-seven actors. It is this translation that is being used by Wilson and Parker. A similar initiative to the Lyceum production was undertaken in 2014, when the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s community-based People’s Company presented a production of Oakes’ translation.
“Doing it with a community cast is probably the only way of doing it,” says Wilson, “but it’s such a clever way of doing it as well, because part of it is the people watching, and aspects of it is just people being themselves. All 92 members of the cast have seven or eight moments each, but it’s not like anybody has a big speech. The people who are doing it are the people who really love to be part of an ensemble, and really understand that’s what it is. That sort of equality is what’s so lovely about it.”
This sounds a long way from Handke’s early days, when he caused a sensation with his provocation on theatrical conventions and expectations, Offending the Audience. Language, bodily or otherwise, has always been at the heart of his work. This was evident from his experiments in form in his full-length play, Kaspar, about the famed nineteenth century autistic boy attempting to communicate. It was there too in the existential longeurs of his scripts for film director Wim Wenders, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, adapted from Handke’s novel of the same name, and Wings of Desire.
The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other wasn’t the first wordless play to appear on the European stage. In 1973, Handke’s German contemporary Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play, Request Programme, charted the last night of a woman living alone, with the only sounds coming from her radio. Fourteen years later, Serbian director Mladen Materic caused a sensation with his show, Tattoo, which, while wordless, used music to pulse the drama.
In 2016, Materic adapted and directed a version of The Hour We Knew nothing of Each Other for a production performed in France. Materic observed that the play’s 46 pages of stage directions were written not long before the birth of Handke’s daughter, and that the play was an attempt of sorts to explain the world she was about to enter. The pair had previously collaborated in 2002 on La Cuisine, a series of kitchen-set rituals which looked at human behaviour in a similar fashion to The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. La Cuisine was presented as part of Edinburgh International Festival on the Lyceum stage where Wilson and Parker’s production of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other will be seen.
“To see that many people onstage,” Wilson beams, “it’s wonderful.”
Out on Grindlay Street, the builders are still at it, although the charity collectors and teenage dancers have long gone. Lothian Road may still be busy, though many people have gone back to work. In another hour, it will be different again.
The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight-Saturday.
The Herald, May 31st 2018