Written for CultureWars.org.uk
If nothing else, the National’s latest offering is guaranteed to divide opinion. Peter Handke’s 1992 play lasts for an hour and a half, during which not a recognisable word is spoken. There are 450 characters, played by a company of 27, and no real narrative in any conventional sense of the word.
So what happens instead? Essentially, people just keep crossing the stage. Hildegard Bechtler’s set beautifully conjures the sense of a city square with an untidy mixture of old and new buildings, rendered as simplified pale blocks. Subtle shifts in the lighting allow these to suggest modern London, Oxford, Europe, America and the Middle East, at varying points in time - domed building variously evokes St Paul’s Cathedral, Brasenose College and old Jerusalem.
Through this space, the people come and go. The first few - conventionally dressed modern types, such as you’d see in modern London - just walk through. A slightly giddy (not to mention luminary-packed) press-night crowd, possibly apprehensive about the prospect of spending an hour and a half without plot or dialogue, titter nervously. After a few more people have crossed the stage, it does start to be genuinely funny. There’s a sense of complicity, of Handke and director James MacDonald teasing the audience with the possibility that nothing more than this will happen for the entire duration. And the sense of an audience finding its feet and wondering whether it will enjoy that, if it turns out to be the case. As it turns out, Handke is not averse to making the thing funny. As the sequences of characters crossing the stage continue, clearly comic and absurd figures emerge. Though wordless, there is interaction - a profusion of it - everything from lust to rage, as well as a good deal of the more commonplace irritations of walking round a city. Jason Thorpe recurs as a yellow tank-topped clown figure, mimicking other characters, following them around as they try to fulfil their jobs.
Gradually, a sense of progression builds. Though largely opaque, the piece is clearly up to something. That’s not to say there’s a definite hidden meaning which audiences are being asked to crack, but nonetheless, there appears to be some conscious choice behind the particular events that unfold - while deliberately seeming random. The juxtapositions of events start to take on associations. There are points where the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a particularly oblique version of The Fast Show, while elsewhere the surrealism of Magritte. Toward the end, the thing builds into a sudden apparent apocalypse. At another point, a group of soldiers are succeeded by a number of women in Islamic dress. More commonly, though, it is the small interactions and failures of communication that are most interesting - suggesting one theme here is the remarkable way that vast numbers of people can live together in cities while pretending that they are virtually alone.
Granted, the piece is being sold on somewhat daunting premises, but in fact it reminds us that theatre can easily survive without words or narrative through-lines. Anyone with the capacity to watch either contemporary dance, or, for that matter, an orchestra playing a symphony, will have no trouble sitting through this; although it is fair to say that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. For me, it possibly outstays its welcome by about quarter of an hour, but, by and large, it is a rewarding experience and another testament to the sheer range and imagination of Nicholas Hytner’s artistic directorship of the National.