The Hour in Which We Knew Nothing of Each Other
Schaubühne, Berlin, Germany
Peter Handke’s Die Stunde Da Wir Nichts Voneinander Wussten (The Hour in Which We Knew Nothing of Each Other) is an ambitious 35-performer work which mobilises the massed ranks of the urban everyday in pursuit of a large scale theatrical poetic. In Gilles Allaud’s design of hallucinatory clarity, the stage suggests an outdoor space somewhere between a street and a public square. Low white-walled buildings on the left give way to road works, a statue and a car, the latter casually draped with tarpaulin. A string of telegraph poles in false perspective run a huge diagonal through the space, against the clear blue sky that covers the back wall of one of Berlin’s largest stages.
Through the two hour length of Handke’s work this space is crossed and recrossed by some 300 characters, none of whom speak, from power-dressed yuppies to lone joggers, from down and outs to cops with guns, from Moses to John Wayne with Charlie Chaplin in between. Divided into movements by the billowing of a translucent curtain, the piece shifts between a kind of quotational naturalism of walks, gestures and tics, and a proto-dance made from gestures repeated and magnified. Each time the dance arrives, or a movement completes itself the curtain cuts through, blown by an unseen wind as it falls across the stage, wiping the picture clear and empty, scattering the characters into the wings like so many leaves.
In pursuing and remounting the everyday in a framed theatrical setting Handke and director Luc Bondy have hit difficult terrain. The choreography we see from a cafe table or a bus window, after all, knows no single author, product only of hundreds of individual and unknowable negotiations about pace, territory and presence. The art of this choreography (described in Michel de Certeau’s exemplary The Practice of Everyday Life) is practical, rooted in real time and permanently in flux. The choreography of the street is both individual and social, hidden and performed. It is before us but not for us, written through the space of the street itself, and by the contingencies of necessarily individual practice and spectatorhood.
The Hour in Which We Knew Nothing of Each Other, in this production at least, has none of these qualities. The performance shuns privacy and simplicity in favour of high Panto at every turn, homogenising both characters and audience in the process. Meanwhile the local structures of the work - visual puns and stereotypes, mini-narratives and so on - also mitigate against any integrity for the individual fragments, fictions or images presented. This is a real problem that threatens to undermine the entire workings of this piece. Where the Wooster Group or Robert Wilson use collage they do so with a keen sense of the haunted autonomy of the fragment - of the links and separations between discrete objects in a spatio-temporal frame. Not so this production.
Bresson, who is invoked by Handke in the programme once said that ‘the flatter an image is, the less it expresses, the more easily it is transformed in contact with other images…’ but there’s little flatness, little blankness here. At worst the images are over-expressed, like a join-the-dots puzzle that’s already been done, leaving no space for a spectator to explore.
Throughout the piece there are glimpses of what this work might have been - gorgeously blank non-meetings, images as crisp, clear and resonant as they are indecipherable. But such moments are too few and still they present problems. Handke and Bondy’s magical-naturalism invites tendentious and recursive comparisons between the street unconscious of The Hour… and the streets of the world outside. Is this predominantly young, white crowd meant to be universal? Finally, it’s perplexing to find that a writer like Handke, whose writing has so questioned the construction of language and its reception, here has a production which erases process in any visible form. Neither the work of the theatre (bodies producing fictions) nor the work of the street (bodies in the live negotiation of space) find any real expression here. It is rather, unwittingly one suspects, a piece of almost pure spectacle.