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Kaspar

Peter Handke
Aya Theatre Company in collaboration with Dreckly Productions with the support of Southwark Playhouse
Arch 6, Burrell Street
(2011)

Kaspar production photo

"Words, words, words", Hamlet once uttered. Where would we be without them? Could we exist? Could we function? Could we make sense of the world? These questions, along with many others in relation to language, provide the basis for Peter Handke's Kaspar; an exploration of language's power to create and corrupt.

Although not a direct re-telling of the story of Kasper Hauser - the sixteen year old found in Nurnberg in 1828 who could only recite the sentence "I want to be a horseman like my father" - this Kaspar is inspired by these events and the role that language acquisition plays in our human development. Uttering a sentence is easy, but without knowledge of each word contained in that sentence and their relation to one another, the sentence lacks meaning. Language is a multi-layered construct, and when spoken other factors must also be taken into account for meaning to manifest.

Kasper opens with fifteen minutes of "I want to be someone like somebody else was once", an apparent statement of identity repeated in cyclical fashion. However, it is soon clear that this statement signifies a lost or confused soul and as Kaspar (Ryan Kiggell) orates the line over and over again, altering its tone, pitch, rhythm and stress, he attempts to find and locate meaning in the syntactical string of words.

Just like the real Kaspar Hauser, Handke's Kaspar is an enigma. Dressed in suit and hat, he is a grown man, but unable to use a language he does not yet possess. Slowly he starts to learn the function of language; its role in communication and grammar becomes increasingly important. Objects begin to acquire meaning from the simple assignment of a noun and the world slowly starts to make sense. As words are related to fellow words, comparisons and contrasts arise and the fact that an utterance has more than one meaning is not only confusing, but also seductive.

Unfortunately, Handke's German text has lost something in translation. A piece about the very fundamentals of language is bound to suffer when rendered into another tongue and many of the German language's deeply rooted nuances are lost in an English version, especially in relation to the philosophical notion of the noun Dasein (existence) and verb sein (to be).

The role of Kaspar requires a great memory and Kiggell most certainly has that, delivering his text with confidence and clarity as Prompters Elisa Terren, Duncan Thomas and Anastasia Hille criss-cross his dialogue with narration contextualising Kaspar's findings and progress.

In this stripped back and simply staged production, Kaspar relies heavily on sound and lighting to help communicate Handke's message. Cues are seamlessly executed and this is one production in which simple scenography, courtesy of Helen Atkinson, Anna Sbokou and George Moustakas, really helps to shed light on what can be a challenging play.

Handke's work is very rarely performed in the UK and Aya Theatre Company should be applauded for embracing such a play. Kaspar is not so much a piece of entertainment, but a piece of staged theory which sits nicely alongside Derrida's différance and Debord's La Société du spectacle.

Although intellectually stimulating, Aya Theatre Company's Kasper sadly reminds us that some plays are better studied than seen and read theoretically, rather than theatrically.

Playing until 6th February 2011.

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Reviewer: Simon Sladen