When the theatre critic Martin Esslin coined the term “theatre of the absurd” in 1960, he was referring to the work of playwrights such as Eugène Ionesco and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. However, he might equally have been describing Murmel Murmel, by the avant-garde Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth.
The play – which is here directed and designed by Herbert Fritsch for the Volksbühne of Berlin – has a script famously comprised of only the nonsense word “murmel”. In Fritsch’s hands this ludicrous restriction becomes the basis for a garish farce in which an ever-changing ensemble speak, shout, chant and sing Roth’s word in an array of comic situations.
The actors are conducted and accompanied on various musical instruments by a man who appears to be wearing the uniform of a military band leader of the late, unlamented, Stalinist state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Indeed the opening scene – in which the performers walk and dance towards us while dressed in the dubious style of the 1970s – reinforces the idea that they may indeed be living in the GDR, their speech restricted by authoritarianism.
That said, as lurid projections splash and explode across the back of Fritsch’s gaudy, multicoloured set, it could equally be a simple satire on the undeserved self-confidence of 1970s fashion. An Abigail’s Party with only one word, if you will.
As the piece continues, its cast murmelling, individually and collectively, all the while, we are treated to a physical comedy which is, by turns, reminiscent of the surrealism of Monty Python, the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and the acrobatics of the circus. Brilliantly timed and highly accomplished, the performances are equalled, if not excelled, by Fritsch’s set, which is an actor in its own right.
The brightly-coloured flats of the design move up and down, from side to side and across the stage, as if on rails. Restricting, hiding and seemingly swallowing the actors, the set produces effects which can be simultaneously hilarious and breathtaking in their ingenuity.
With so much clever theatrics on display, there is only one complaint to level against the show. Namely, at 80 minutes, it outstays its welcome.
There are, as Fritsch proves, many and varied ways to perform while repeating the word “murmel”. However, one can’t help but feel that the impact of his comic inventiveness would be greater if he had kept his murmelling to an hour.
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 2, 2015
© Mark Brown