A single word – “murmel” (German for “mumble”) – is the only word used, but it is uttered repeatedly in so many different ways it comes to mean many things in a captivating performance that owes much more to contemporary dance, modern art and clowning than any conventional narrative theatre. This is German director Herbert Fritsch‘s staging of Swiss artist Dieter Roth‘s monotonous 178 page play and it is absurdly watchable.
Eleven characters, dressed like grotesque extras from a 50s gangster movie, invade the stage. They appear trapped, tormented, their mouths agape like Munch’s The Scream. Their murmels are mostly frantic, occasionally bemused, hypnotically repetitive and, strangely, almost musical. All the while, they are conducted from the stalls, by a man in military uniform, who at times, turns everything a little Philip Glass.
The set is simple: nothing more than blank, multi-coloured, brightly-lit flats. Yet they are used to powerful effect. They swell in and out like the belly of a breathing animal, or scythe across the stage with vicious speed. Sometimes, they hunker down, trapping the murmellers in a box beneath them. Sometimes, they zoom across and the murmellers magically disappear. It’s like a huge, living Mondrian painting.
Frequent pratfalls off the stage into the orchestra pit provide extra visual humour, as do costume changes – first into ballet dancing teletubbies, then into Vic & Bob’s Donald and Davey Stott. For all the nonsensical nature of the piece, somehow it’s possible to grow attached to certain characters. When they each individually appear for a curtain call, displaying a signature mannerism, you realise how much you’ve absorbed of their personality. It might be fruitless trying to make sense of Murmel Murmel, but it is exhilarating theatre.