Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 13 February, 2008

In Peter Handke’s screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire, angels act as witnesses to the lives of mortals. The witnessing confers significance; not great import or symbolic weight, but significance none the less. For The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, we in the audience are the angels, and the susurrating interior monologues are replaced by visions. We watch a person cross a city square; then another; then two; before we know it, a stream of folk are walking, jogging, dancing, skating and in one case abseiling onto and off the square… all without speaking a word. There is an occasional bit of vocalise, but in 95 minutes, with 27 actors playing some 450 different roles, not one word is spoken.
There is no narrative. Some folk are doing everyday, banal things (taking a smoke break, meeting a friend, going to work, conducting a guided tour), some are engaged in unusual but still plausible behaviour (an armed military platoon securing the area, a succession of crocodiles of schoolmasters, war veterans etc), some quite incredible (a group dressed for summer and another for winter meet, exchange clothes and exit; a businessman empties his pockets of a haul including a stocking, a set of brass knuckles and a large wooden heart). Some are in love, some insane, some in a world of their own... and yet always our world too, even when the figure is Moses carrying the tablets, or Aeneas carrying Anchises, or Papageno carrying his birdcage. One character, played by that skilled clown-actor Jason Thorpe, pries repeatedly into others’ activities and mimics them.
It is a feat of phenomenal orchestration by director James Macdonald; the wings must be a pandemonium of costume-changing and prop-grabbing. It may feel like an interesting idea overplayed, but I found after the first half-hour or so that I settled into a different mode of watching, almost becoming part of the process and the world of the play. A group of front-row latecomers seemed to be part of the action; it’s the kind of piece where you want to get up and join in to see whether anyone notices, and at a couple of points characters do indeed enter from the auditorium. The whole event is a kind of communion of people-watching. But is it worth paying up to £29 when one could sit for free in similar surroundings directly outside and watch as many people, and almost as varied, coming and going? Yes, somehow it is.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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