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Noise And Silence

February 8, 2008

The Independent newspaper ran a fun little article about a production of the Austrian playwright Peter Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. The play consists of 60 pages of stage directions, with no dialogue. In the National Theatre production which opened this week in London, 27 performers play 450 parts in 90 word-free minutes.

Journalist Andy McSmith professes to being bemused by the production. He cites other wordless plays like Beckett's Act Without Words shorts, but puts their lack of dialogue down to the fact that they're only a few minutes long. Yet despite his befuddlement, McSmith's take on Handke's drama is an engaging read: His descriptions of the actors processing across the stage like old men, the thumps and screams, and the finale in which an actor sitting in the audience gets up on stage, make the work sound rather compelling. I especially like the idea that the lack of spoken words causes an explosion of dialogue in the audience at the end: "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," McSmith writes. "They talked in their seats, in the aisles, and on their way through the exit. It was happy chatter."

I haven't seen the play, but I've read it. The work isn't so much trying, as McSmith attests, to "make some point about people's inability to communicate." It's more about the myriad different ways that people communicate -- from the joy of movement to the power of locking eyes across a town square. Language is just one method of interacting. It's the most direct, perhaps, which is why the audience broke out into enthusiastic chatter at the end in the National's production.
Perhaps McSmith let himself get bamboozled by the venue. If The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other had been performed at The Sadler's Wells or The Royal Ballet by dancers rather than actors, then no one would have considered the wordlessness out of the ordinary. It's funny how often peoples' perceptions of theatre -- mine included -- are bound by conventional spoken language.

Here's a little weekend reading for anyone interested in delving into Handke's play.


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