Theatre: Meet Europe's movers and shakers

Stunde Null QEH, SBC, London
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The Independent Culture
There's an episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil, faced with a party of German guests, finds himself unable to get through a sentence without mentioning the War. It's the reverse of this syndrome - a compulsive inability to articulate the word "war" - that afflicts one of the orators in Stunde Null, Swiss director Christoph Marthaler's surreal speeches- and-slapstick satire, set in a training school for post-war German politicians, which is now brought to LIFT by the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg.

The show arose from a request by the German political authorities for a piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A hilarious - yet pervasively sad - send-up of the urge to suppression and evasion can't have been quite what they had in mind. Stunde Null means Zero Hour: the fallacious idea that German history, pre-1945, could be sponged away and a clean start made. Using extracts from actual speeches delivered in the immediate post-war period, the show mocks the German tendency to pose as the essentially innocent victims of Nazism and to blame the Third Reich for everything, even the continued failure to be honest with themselves.

There's a curious irony here. Gathered in a wood-panelled underground studio - where microphones sprout out of doors and where men practise their speeches facing the walls in babbling, urinal-like line-ups - the besuited middle-aged trainees are put through their paces by a bustlingly bossy matron-cum-nanny figure. A strident Beckettian alarm-bell punctuates their physical workouts, in which they perform - with a delectably absurd balletic grace that's only heightened by the unsightliness of their sports- kitted bodies - such statesmanlike exercises as cutting ceremonial ribbons, rolling out and walking down red carpets, and checking that the camera captures their best side.

What you get a strong sense of is haplessness, helplessness and a passivity that veers into a communal regression to childhood. One of the matron's lectures, which are so boring the men slump sideways off their chairs, is about living in caves and what that does to the skin and to the sense of time. You feel that the men here are out of touch, just as if trapped in a cave. But if Marthaler's point is that politicians need to shoulder guilt and responsibility and to stop acting like victims, why does he place these wannabe leaders in a bizarre boarding-school context where their autonomy seems to have been taken away from them? What power is the matron working for?

The piece is full of music - Romantic period songs which the men sing and hum in exquisite harmonies, yanking the mood from broad knockabout to piercing atavistic nostalgia in a second. True, some of the slapstick routines feel a mite unspontaneous. There's a long sequence where the men fight a farcical losing battle with the clapped-out fold-up beds on which they have to spend the night. Like the rest of the piece, it is beautifully orchestrated, each bit of business recurring and modulating as though it were a motif in some complex piece of music. But the sequence would be funnier if the accidents didn't look so deliberate.

You would think, if you didn't know better, that the political speeches, with their barmy non-sequiturs, rhetorical appeals to youth and anxious tip-toeings round the real subject, had been invented for the present occasion. Their desperateness makes you feel sad rather than contemptuous and certainly never superior. Stunde Null, which runs for an unbroken, unhurried, deliberately testing two and a half hours, is not just about Germans.

Ends tomorrow. Booking: 0171-960 4242