The story of Kaspar Hauser has inspired writers down the generations. It’s a tabula rasa, this story of a boy of 16 found in a town square in Nurnberg knowing only one sentence and life in a single dark room, on which the literary imagination has danced.
It’s clearly the origins and inspiration for Kaspar, by the Austrian-born playwright Peter Handke, that’s now just opened in London. But, any review would be remiss not to point out early on that this is avant-garde theatre with a very large capital A. If you like your theatre to have plot, character development, or even logical sense, then this is not the show for you.
“I want to be someone like somebody else was once.” With those words – in every conceivable intonation and rhythm – Ryan Kiggell as Kaspar begins the play, and occupies at least the first 10 minutes. It’s a fine performance – it could easily be a jumble, yet the body language and sounds match perfectly to different possibilities, and the detail exploration of that single phrase is followed by an confused but deeply studied exploration of the banal domestic furnishings, chair, table, bench and wardrobe scattered around the “stage”. It constitutes a spectacularly good piece of physical theatre.
To enjoy this performance, you have to be able to focus on the moment, the sound, the phrase – trying to make it all make sense in a narrative form can only result in irritation, although there’s certainly plenty of philosophical games to be played. And that focus makes enormous demands on Kiggell; for nearly every second of the production he’s the only focus, from that halting original experimentation with the single sentence, on to the final, more polished presenter, confident at the microphone armed with a seemingly endless collection of almost sensical management buzz words and self-help slogans that reflect Handke’s exploration of the effect of modern life, modern media on this delicate subject.
The setting for this “pop-up” production (clearly this is going to be the phrase for this economic crisis) is an abandoned office, flashy and optimitisc cheap plastic with additional performance from the trains running over this converted railway arch. That works as a setting for the stream of management speak, as well as for the darker moments of this production, as a autocratic, even fascist, state apeears to be shaping this tabula rasa, with enthusiastic recitation of phrases such as “while giving a beating it is good to imagine the imminent order… beat air from their lungs like dust from a rug”.
Live prompters Elisa Terren and Duncan Thomas, half hidden behind the side pillars of the office, work well, but perhaps the least successful part of the production is the “other Kaspars”, who tumble on stage in the second act and roll around it like ill-disciplined theatre clowns. There appears to be intention in this contrast, but their messy movements and pinball interactions don’t enhanced the studied performance of Kiggell.
Still, the Aya Theatre Company has to be congratulated for bringing this very Continental form of theatre to London, and making a very decent fist of an extremely difficult text.
Go and see it if you dare…
The Aya Theatre production continues until February 6.