The Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other by Peter Handke is a highly unusual production. Created and performed by a ‘Community Chorus of Edinburgh Residents,’ it features a cast of eighty-six non-professional actors and, watching it, I am filled with admiration for the way in which this complex piece has been so meticulously choreographed, the many costume changes serving to make me believe I am actually watching more than a hundred performers.
The play begins with the curtain rising to show a narrow band, wherein we become aware of feet passing restlessly to and fro – then the curtain opens upwards to show streams of people passing back and forth across a steeply raked stage, sometimes just a few at once, other times a veritable torrent of them, all racing to fulfil their imaginary deadlines. These are characters from – if you’ll forgive the pun – all walks of life. Office workers, business people, street cleaners and ramblers… waiters and prisoners, decorators and soldiers – indeed, the multiplicity of urban existence is written large and restlessly plays out as music and sound effects provide a stirring accompaniment.
Occasionally, something surreal moves across the stage – people struggle to push a gigantic stone sculpture on a wooden trolley, a mystic leads a magical floating contraption from one side to the other. There are elements of slapstick humour too: a hapless street cleaner attempts to brush a barrage of newspapers blowing in the wind; a paint-spattered decorator performs a strange wistful ballet with a ladder – and in one scene, an unmistakably Chaplinesque figure swings a familiar walking stick. There are more forbidding moments too. A highlight for me is the extended sequence, where groups of older actors shuffle inexorably into the wings – and the that ultimately waits for everyone…
There are virtually no words spoken in the entire production and much of what we’re shown here is open to personal interpretation. Why is one character trying to impersonate everyone he encounters? Is he intended to personify an actor at work? Why do characters from Greek mythology occasionally put in an appearance? I’m not really sure, but hey, I’m glad they’re there! At the play’s conclusion, the huge cast troop out and take their much-deserved bows – and we’re allowed a glimpse of the racks and racks of costumes ranged along the back of the stage, which they have utilised to create their various personae.
I emerge from the Lyceum feeling that I have just viewed something complex , exciting and pretty unique. Directors Wils Wilson and Janice Parker deserve huge plaudits for this. It’s a truly monumental undertaking and, as I can’t help remarking afterwards, something the like of which I’ve never seen in the theatre before. Which surely must be one of the strongest reasons for seeing it.