New politics, real politik

After two world wars, it takes a Swiss clown to see the funny side of German history. Carole Woddis on Hamburg's contribution to the London International Festival of Theatre
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The Independent Culture
When Germaine Greer summarised Labour's election campaign as persuading customers to buy Blair "by a combination of exactly the same strategies that get them to swap their old washing powder for a virtually identical 'new energy' powder", she was only stating what is generally acknowledged but never really confronted. That modern democratic processes have been taken over by blatant political packaging.

It's one of the lessons being taught at Christoph Marthaler's school for politicians, Stunde Null oder Die Kunst des Servierens (Zero Hour or The Art of Public Service), coming to LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) next week courtesy of Germany's Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg.

In a large, wood-panelled chamber - 1930s German monumentalism meets bunker mentality meets recording studio - seven grey-suited, bespectacled men are seen going through their paces in preparation for wooing the democratic vote. But as we watch them limber up for public office, in their singlets and shorts, these men are increasingly revealed as either pitifully pathetic, plain barking mad or just simply incompetent. In their midst hovers (surprise, surprise!) a nanny figure - Miss Zero, the only woman in the piece, one moment scolding, the next cosseting - who diverts herself by watching wartime newsreels and atomic mushroom clouds.

The political paradox of the piece is that, historically, the implied question - Would you really want to put your trust in such men? - has so obviously met with the answer: Yes!

For Marthaler has culled his text from the real-life speeches of Germany's pre- and post-war politicians - Ernst Wiernecht, Kurt Schumacher and the former Federal Republic's first chancellor, Dr Konrad Adenauer - jumbled up with soundbites from other major European leaders, Churchill among them.

Stunde Null is, of course, an ironic title, referring as it does to Germany's "Zero Hour", the nation's fresh start in 1945. The piece was, in fact, commissioned by the German authorities as part of the country's commemoration of the end of the Second World War. Marthaler, however, in his own inimitable way, contrived to expose something considerably darker beneath his play's hysterically funny goings-on: Germany's self-pity, its chronic inability to face its communal guilt, and the evasive vacuousness of all political language.

"In Germany, it is very difficult to make theatre with humour," says the pigtailed Marthaler with some understatement. Marthaler, however, is not German by birth but Swiss - an outsider who, perhaps precisely because of his foreigness, is able to see things the Germans can't.

This is not London's first experience of the work of this maverick director - part agent provocateur, part musician extraordinaire - a former clown who once trained at the Lecoq school of mime in Paris and has moved steadily over the years from sitting at the side of the stage, arranging the music, to taking centre stage, orchestrating the whole works.

Two years ago Marthaler brought a very different spectacle to LIFT, one of that year's more controversial items, Berlin Volksbuhne's Murx den Europaer! Murx ihn! Murx inh ab! (Crush the European! Crush him! Crush him to death!). Staged in a cavernous hall close to the Isle of Dogs in London's Docklands, it provided an appalling, moving glimpse into the emotional and psychological state of East Germans after reunification. For some, though, its apparent aimlessness of purpose made it impenetrable, a mystifying, frustrating experience.

London audiences need have no fear this time round. Possibly one of the funniest shows in the festival, if not of the year, and a testament to wonderful team-work and individual talent (a sort of Wooster Group meets Theatre de Complicite), Stunde Null may well carry all the distinctive hallmarks of its predecessor (Marthaler again working with designer Anna Viebrock) but, unlike Murx, its line of attack is immediate and unmistakeable. In Montreal a couple of weeks ago, audiences took Marthaler's new piece to their hearts, rewarding the company (some of whom have worked with the director, on and off, for 10 to 15 years) with nightly standing ovations.

As in Murx, text is mixed with music-making of a rare and sublime kind - the more poignant for its being set in a context either of high absurdity or of puncturing criticism. German songs, mostly of tender lyricism, set the overall tone, only once breaking out into something more aggressive when "La Vie en Rose" is suddenly overtaken by an outbreak of teutonic beer-garden bellicosity. Noel Coward's "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans" also gets an airing, as does that playground stalwart, "Hitler, he only had one ball", sung at full throttle.

Graham Valentine - a Scottish actor who has worked with Marthaler for 30-odd years - also turns in his own spectacular, self-written verbal tour de force. Looking like a cross between a bug-eyed John Cleese and a balletic giraffe, he wraps his tongue round a four-language version of excerpts from the 1945 Allies Control Council's rules and regulations and an alliterative absurdist ode to Pimlico by the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, rising to a crescendo of splenetic fury... sound and fury signifying nothing - and everything.

A scathing satirist, Marthaler's previous work has included other politically impelled studies - of his native Switzerland's current compulsory army conscription or its historical rejection of Jewish refugees from Kristalnacht. But his methods belie the label of "political" director. He's a people- watcher, an organic shaper who prefers to pay his actors the compliment of giving their talents full rein, only drawing the strings together at the last minute. Stunde Null is packed with close observations of human foibles, as its trainee politicians go through the kind of exercises that wouldn't be out of place in a kindergarten - all in the course of learning to smile, roll out the red carpet and glad-hand the public.

The opening speech, spoken with sorrowing regret by actor Joseph Ostendorf, sets the scene and context for what is to come. Written by politician cum poet, Ernst Wiernecht, it sentimentally eulogises the Germany of the past - "Once we had a fatherland..." - and proceeds to elaborate on the sufferings that have befallen the nation as if some outside pestilence had come amongst them:

"And when the first great war came, dutifully they went off to it, both young and old, with hearts and hands that were clean... Then, there appeared the swastika which burned into the nation's soul... In these 12 years, almost the whole of a nation was ruined and poisoned right down to the depths of its soul. Under the leadership of thieves and murderers, a nation was forced to rise up in order to conquer the world."

"The German people have had to put up with so much since 1914," laments a later speaker. An old man mutters about it being "better to be a coward for a second than dead for a lifetime" and then launches into a stream of smutty, music-hall jokes. A third speaks of new beginnings in terms not un-familiar to a Blairite Britain: "Perhaps we are a generation that is absolutely getting there - getting to a new planet, a new life... a new kind of loving, new kind of laughing, a new kind of God."

New future, new dawn, old jokes. The humour is not only in the words, it is in the gestures. These men fumble, knock into each other, explode into sudden squabbles. At other times, they adopt reassuringly avuncular poses with pipes stuck in their mouths. It is all such a charade.

"Our first idea was to go for clowns," says Marthaler. And the slapstick is certainly of a high order, climaxing in a side-splitting dormitory sequence in which beds collapse as if in anarchic free-fall, hugging their occupants to them like so many asparagus rolls or ensnaring them, octupus- like, in their frames.

You look at these men and you can see their equivalents emerging yesterday and in all our tomorrows to come from Brussels, The Hague, Amsterdam... The thing is that, after Zero Hour, you'll never be able to see them in quite the same way again.

'Stunde Null': 12-15 June, QEH/RFH2, SBC, London SE1 (0171 960 4242)