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Herbert Fritsch - Dieter Roth and Murmel Murmel

It was no laughing matter when German theatre director Herbert Fritsch decided to stage Swiss-based artist Dieter Roth's play, Murmel Murmel, at the Volksbuhne, Berlin, in 2012. Here was a work which had never been staged in full but which was now about to be seen at one of the most prestigious of Europe's stages. The fact that the play's 178 pages consisted of just one word, Murmel (Murmur) suggested that Roth's epic piece of concrete poetry was unstageable. As Fritsch's production arrives in Edinburgh for the final week of the International Festival, such perceptions couldn't be more wrong.

“They said to me that the Volksbuhne is not good for a little joke,” Fritsch explains. “I said that it's not just a joke. If you listen to the words, they can be a prayer or a secret. You can do everything with these words. You can make them as great as Shakespeare, or it can be like doing the telephone book.”

With the play-text consisting of six columns of words with breaks inbetween, there are few clues to how Roth's work may be staged. This initially caused some trepidation for Fritsch's twelve-strong acting ensemble.

“One morning I got there and they said, Herbert, what are we doing here?,” says Fritsch, “and I said, that's a really good existential question. The actors were a little frustrated, because they wanted the audience to like it. I said, okay, we have to think the audience won't like it, but when we go on we go on full of energy and make sure that we like it, because we don't know what they'll like.”

As it turned out, Fritsch's take on Murmel Murmel was a hit, with its eighty minutes of Dada-inspired slapstick tapping into an international language of theatre that needs little in the way of translation.

“We're just following the rhythm,” Fritsch explains. “There are three different parts to it, and we did a lot of choreography so there are kind of scenes, but I don't want to say too much. It has to be a surprise.”

Roth's early work saw him publish artists books and subvert existing publications as he did with his 1961 volume, Literaturwurst (Literature Sausage), the first copy of which was made out of an issue of the Daily Mirror mixed with spices and other foodstuffs an stuffed inside a sausage skin. Fritsch too looks to books to illustrate his approach to Murmel Murmel.
“When you have bookshelves in a room,” he says, “and you can see all those books, you wonder what happens to them when you don't read them. There's all this mumbling going on inside them, and you take this idea and try and find a way to stage it.”

Fritsch first came into contact with Roth after they were introduced by Basel-based gallerist Felix Handschin, a long-time champion of Roth who thought the pair might have some kind of artistic common ground.

“It was Felix who brought us together,” Fritsch explains. “It was the beginning of the 1980s, and Roth showed me this play, which I liked very much, and always wanted to do. Before he died Felix said that I had to stage Murmel Murmel, so we did a little bit at his funeral.”

Given his history as an artist of extremes, Roth himself had specific ideas about his work.

“He was heavy,” says Fritsch of Roth, who died in 1998. “He was full of energy, and he didn't accept everything. One time a friend of his who was also a director did Murmel Murmel as a big spectacle with opera singers and everything, and Roth hated it. He said he wanted to make the most boring play ever seen onstage. If he saw my production I don't think he'd be amused.

“He always said that you don't do what people want you to do, and for me that's a really good impulse to think about, and to do a play that's as boring as possible is a very interesting idea. You can't blackmail Roth. He did what he wanted without any kind of compromise. It's like when he did something with his wife in Iceland, when he took away all her clothes, her books and her furniture, and said that everything had to come from within.”

Fritsch was an actor at the Volksbuhne for many years before he moved into directing aged fifty-six., with a production of Moliere's The Miser in 2007. Since then he has worked in major theatres throughout Germany with a playfully restless style that pulses Murmel Murmel. The roots of this approach date back again to the early 1980s with a show he did called The Zero Show.

“We improvised strange moves of the body,” he says. We used faces and sounds but there were no words. That's been an influence on all of my pieces since then.”

In this respect, using one word in Murmel Murmel instead of none sounds like a step up, even if the play's author might not entirely approve.

“I think maybe Roth wouldn't like how I did it,” Fritsch speculates. “His son saw it and liked it. The Dieter Roth society liked it too. They initially didn't want to give me the rights to the play, but then they liked it. The way I've done it is my way to see it, and Roth had his way to see it, so maybe he would like it, I don't know.

“If the Volksbuhne had said, okay, you can do Murmel Murmel, but do it on a studio stage, it would have been something else. You take something like this and put it on a big stage, it's not a little joke. People look on it differently and it's taken seriously. It's not experimental theatre. I don't do experimental theatre. I do theatre on a big stage.”

Murmel Murmel, King's Theatre, Aug 28-29, 8pm, Aug 29-30, 3pm.
Www.eif.co.uk/murmel

The Herald, August 25th 2015

ends

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