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Lost for Words

Theatre Critic Matt Trueman talks to avant-garde director Herbert Fritsch about staging the ‘unstageable’.

Shakespeare used 28,829 different words in his life’s work. Dieter Roth uses just one in Murmel Murmel: ‘murmel’ – German for mumble. Roth’s play, all 176 pages of it, consists of nothing but mumbles. ‘Murmel, murmel, murmel…’ and so on.

It was meant to be the most boring play imaginable, all but unstageable. The Swiss artist intended it as a conceptual piece: the script itself being the artwork. It was laid out like any other playscript with characters, stage directions, acts and scenes, only no-one says anything except ‘murmel.’

How do you possibly stage that? Enter the German director Herbert Fritsch. ‘For me, it is not a joke’ Fritsch insists. ‘When I first suggested the piece to Frank Castof [then Artistic Director of the Volksbühne], his reaction was, ‘You won’t get the Volksbühne for some little joke.’ In reply, I very quietly repeated: ‘Mumble, mumble. Listen to these words. Listen to all that you can hear in these words.’ There is, he believes, an inherent mystery about the mumble.

Don’t think it’s dry, though. Fritsch’s staging is anything but monotone. Instead, it’s a full-blown extravaganza – comic, absurd, awful, cruel. ‘There’s a lot to see’ says Fritsch: music, dance, singing, colour, slapstick, scenogrpahy and, of course, mumbling. ‘Where you see it as a comedy, tragedy, operetta, opera or musical – or as a picture – that’s all up to the audience.’

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