The American poet Charles Simic writes about the artist Joseph Cornell (of strange items in boxes fame):
There are really three kinds of image. First there are those seen with eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealist, expressionists and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes, however, are of the third kind. They partake of both dream and reality and something else that doesn’t have a name.They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire… And the other is to make up stories about what one sees…. Neither [way] by itself is sufficient. It’s the mingling of the two that makes up the third image.
Simic’s comments on Cornell apply perfectly to the theatre of Peter Handke (and – even more so to Pina Bausch who is coming to London next week – I can’t wait.)
Last night I went to the National to see Handke’s 110 minute wordless play The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. I saw it in Berlin in 1993 at the Shaubuehne and remember it as one of the most extraordinary things I saw in a long run of extraordinary theatre from that city. So I was surprised and delighted that the often very staid London theatre scene had picked up Handke’s work.
And it was just as wonderful a play as I remember. 27 actors playing 450 roles. A spartan, sunny town square which is crossed and recrossed by an increasingly odd selection of people, all wrapped in their own world, seemingly discrete but – for us, the audience – involved in a massive piece of (finally, apocalyptic) choreography.
The central idea – that every hour is an hour where we know nothing of each other – struck me forcibly while I was living in Berlin. I was walking one winter night through Neukölln and from an open second floor window, I heard the sobbing of a woman – sharp, hysterical, awful. I stopped dead on the street and realized that while I was walking untroubled below, someone else less than 10 metres away was in a state of absolute misery. Those two worlds existed simultaneously yet absolutely separate.
In any street, one passer-by can be wracked with the poisoned grief of a broken heart and another can be giddy-gilled with love. Any person you pass on the pavement is carrying around a whole, unique universe of feeling, utterly discrete from yours.
Handke’s play opens up the possibility of glimpsing this truth. The mosaic of people’s worlds passing in the street while pondering the ultimate impossibility of ever really knowing what’s going on another person’s mind.
But aside from it’s philosophical overtones, the play is a wonder to watch. It’s funny, puzzling, generous.
It’s so refreshing to sit in a theatre and not be spoon fed, not have every emotinal response choreographed by plot or music or hammed-up acting. I could sense that the British actors struggled with no gags, no characters (something that never bothers Berlin actors) but ultimately Handke’s play is too oblique and poetic to allow itself to be hijacked.
In many ways it’s completely atypical of Handke’s usually word-packed theatre, (since it obviously has no words) but the profusion, the super abundance of images, of creative starts, of open ended sentences seems so generous. So often the British plays have one idea stretched out over interminable hours and a clonky, obvious point hammered home over and over.
Handke completely trusts the people watching to co-create and it’s so refreshing to be credited with a brain as an audience member. There’s so much space to pick up visual, theatrical hints and spin stories from them yourself. Beautiful pauses to savour an image and not have it’s significance jammed down your throat.
I’m sure there will be a chunk of British theatre-goers who will hate it and rebel at the amount of work they’re supposed to supply – but I LOVED it and have long since given up the need to apologize for my unstructured, allusive tastes.
I can barely wait for Pina next week.