On a bare stage – sometimes washed in light, sometimes lit by a solitary beam – people come and go, never pausing to speak. Sometimes they come in crowds, like busy people piling off a train; sometimes in couples or small groups; sometimes alone, running to an appointment, or howling in grief and distress. For a while towards the end, they gather in a crowd, as if dealing with some huge, cataclysmic emergency; then they disperse, and the normal rhythm of life resumes.
The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh *****
This is Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s great 1992 wordless play The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, inspired by a morning Handke spent watching people on a town square in Italy. In its original Austrian production, the play was one of the hits of the 1994 Edinburgh Festival; and now it has been revived at the Lyceum in one of the most remarkable community productions ever seen in Scotland, co-directed by Lyceum associate Wils Wilson and choreographer Janice Parker, and featuring a cast of 90 Edinburgh citizens.
The play is an extraordinary 90-minute framing, exploration and intensification of the idea of people-watching; and this Wilson-Parker version is far more playful than the Viennese original, which had a cool, contemporary feel, like a comment on modern social isolation.
Here, the acting company has been invited to raid the Lyceum’s vast wardrobe, so that the scenes passing before us often become dreamlike, with cardinals and prophets passing by, along with generations of refugees, and the physical stuff of civilisations, from ancient columns to discarded statues.
The action is often at its strongest when most austere, though, with a gesture of kindness passing between two previously isolated figures, or a succession of simply-dressed modern citizens inching across the stage towards darkness, through the mounting intensity of Michael John McCarthy’s score and soundscape.
At the last, this Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other probably has too many endings, and an unnecessary ten minutes or so in its closing sequence.
It remains an exhilarating feat of choreography and direction, though, and of acting, both collective and individual.
And if, after we emerge into the evening light, we find
ourselves seeing performance and meaning everywhere, in the coming and going of people on Grindlay Street and Festival Square, then that’s a measure of the sheer transforming power of Handke’s vision, brought to life with a rare passion and humanity by this superb creative team, including 90 citizens of Edinburgh acting out of their skins, on behalf of us all.