'Gloriously risky': Edinburgh residents play 450 characters in wordless play

Peter Handke’s drama The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is staged at the Lyceum with cast of almost 100 volunteers

An exuberant jogger crosses paths with a weeping woman; a defeated football fan stumbles around a champagne-quaffing toff; lovers embrace as a blind-folded prisoner is dragged towards execution.

In The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, Austrian playwright Peter Handke offers a vivid and sometimes troubling people’s pageant in his famously wordless script that describes 450 different characters as they pass through an ordinary town square.

Later this week, the Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh twists the human kaleidoscope even further by staging the play for what they believe is the first time entirely using volunteers, in a production that certainly boasts the largest cast that the venue has ever hosted.

It is, explains movement director Janice Parker, a “gloriously risky” project, to invite nearly 100 non-professionals, the majority of whom have never stood on a stage before, to perform a notoriously abstract and challenging work – not least in the mammoth practicalities of fitting such large numbers into the wings at the same time while complying with health and safety regulations.

The guiding principle of the production has been access. Potential cast members were not auditioned, but invited to taster sessions; if they concluded that the project was for them and could commit the required rehearsal time on Friday evenings and Saturdays, they were in.

The key to managing the biggest team she has ever worked with, says co-director and Lyceum associate Wils Wilson, has been preparation. She brandishes a script in which every cast member’s name and photograph is attached to notes on their interests, skills and allotted parts. Every single entrance has been numbered and linked to accompanying costumes and props.

The feat of choreography and coordination is evident in rehearsal, as individuals criss-cross the stage at different speeds, performing separate mimes, or get drawn into mini-dramas as they go, amazingly never once banging into each other. Some characters are instantly recognisable – Charlie Chaplin twirls his cane and a sprinkling of mythological creatures add a surreal tone to proceedings – while others are more quotidian, leaving it open to the audience to write their own stories around each appearance.

Rehearsals for the Lyceum’s production of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other
Rehearsals for the Lyceum’s production of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. Photograph: Aly Wight

As a movement specialist, Parker is used to working without words, but Handke’s script offers roles and actions for each character. “Actors always want to know, ‘But why am I doing that?’ and here I can say, ‘Stick to the task’. Not having words to learn frees the body so much: they are doing, often things that they do every day.”

The sense of collective endeavour is powerful among cast members too: David Hunter, a 58-year-old NHS practice manager, is a regular visitor to the Lyceum and suffered a serious brain injury last year that affected his mobility and speech. “From a personal point of view, it’s been a tremendous experience,” he says. “Everyone has been so supportive, especially helping me work on the movement and coordination.”

The production marks the end of David Greig’s second season as Lyceum artistic director, but was the first pitch that he made to the Lyceum board, he explains. The use of a community cast bookends with his autumn 2016 debut, his own updating of Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old tragedy about a refugee crisis, The Suppliant Women, which similarly used local volunteers to carry the work.

The Hour took longer to come together, says Greig: “The logistics are hard because of the sheer scale.”

“Since [the initial pitch], we’ve had Brexit, Trump, Scotland in an ongoing fractious state, and this play reminds us of the ordinary miracle that we mostly run along together.” The play, he believes, says that we must “take care of this fragile rubbing-along, that we mustn’t take it for granted”. While the human panorama offers moments of great humour and tenderness, others are more disturbing, hinting at the darkness stalking the edges of the ordinary. Greig notes that the play was written in 1992, in the political context of the Yugoslav wars.

“Also Handke was exploring the public space as a place of dream and imagination and surprise,” he adds, “and I want the Lyceum to be an engine of civic energy and transformation.”

  • The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, 31 May–2 June. Box office: 0131-248 4848.


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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