First published in The Times, Monday August 31 2015
In outline, this looked fascinating: an acclaimed staging of a piece of concrete poetry by the Swiss artist Dieter Roth, consisting of 176 pages filled with a single word: “murmel”. Sadly, in the hands of the director Herbert Fritsch and the 11-strong ensemble of the Volksbühne, Berlin, this show, while intermittently engaging, proved something of an endurance test.
Although Fritsch’s production eschewed any conventional narrative structure, the cartoonish characters of the opening sequence appeared trapped in a rainbow-coloured purgatory in which they were torn between the safety of the crowd and a dangerous individualism. The high hair and colourful, early-Sixties fashions were rendered grotesque by their stumbling, knock-kneed movements and gaping expressions – think Mad Men crossed with The Walking Dead.
Having appeared gradually, the ensemble moveed as one across the pink-carpeted stage, with members of the group asserting their individuality by means of physical motifs, repeated ad nauseam. Now and again the characters raised their faces hopefully towards the audience, seeking approval in the way a child might.
Over the course of an interminable 80-minutes, the repeated use of the word “murmel” (which means, variously, “to murmur” or “a marble” in German) served no more meaningful purpose than to add percussive texture to Ingo Günther’s (admittedly evocative) live soundtrack.
There was nothing in Fritsch’s production to suggest any deeper satirical purpose beyond the straightforwardly humorous. Indeed, the Roth original appeared little more than a pretext from which to revamp familiar physical comedy tropes, which had a variable strike rate. The sequence in which the Fritsch-designed set of sliding screens bore down on the performers’ heads was genuinely unexpected while the finale takes the form of a brilliantly choreographed mini-symphony made up of voices, movement and melodica playing.
Yet seeing a performer fall off the stage for the umpteenth time was a real yawn, while the middle section, a parody of contemporary dance performed in leotards, looked literally like treading water before the big finish. Throughout, “murmel” rebounded, but perhaps “marmite” would have been more meaningful.