The Russians don't like it. Not one little bit. So what have the Germans done to upset them?

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Even before the first wave of deserters rolled up the aisles of St Petersburg's Baltic House Theatre heading noisily for the exit, it was obvious that something wasn't quite right. For a start, the set of the Volksbuhne's Murx was virtually indistinguishable from the auditorium's Soviet-era decor: vast expanses of sculpted formica, acres of fake marble and oak, punched through by gargantuan heating systems and other brutalist accoutrements. The costumes, too, were mirrored in the drab, confectionary elegance of the spectators.

And the piece itself, a masterful exploration of the crushing tedium of life under and after socialism, told in elongated stretches of reptilian action and great tracts of song, seemed less about the East German company's receding past than the former USSR's stagnant, stultifying present.

"If I lived in a situation such as here," director and writer Christoph Marthaler said as he stood in the foyer, helplessly watching his audience disappearing, "and if I went to the theatre and saw exactly what is happening on the stage now, I imagine I might walk out too."

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Volksbuhne has re-established itself as one of the most dynamic and progressive companies in Europe. The engineer of the transformation, East German director Frank Castorf, began his artistic tenure at Rosa Luxemburg Platz by demonstrating exactly why GDR officials had banned his work. His production of King Lear depicted reunification as a civil war between the country's divided selves.

To assist in the slaughter of any remaining beasts roaming around the German psyche, Castorf employed Swiss director and composer Christoph Marthaler, famed for theatre blanched of conflict, action and other dramatic crudities. In Marthaler's work, nothing happens. Not just once or twice, but so many times that even the inactivity becomes repetitive.

One of Marthaler's earliest experiments was a "happening" in which he played the music of Erik Satie - not the paciest of composers - for an unbroken 27 hours in a Zurich chemist's shop. His production of The Tempest obsessively focused on the short nap Miranda takes, stretching it out to a two- hour sleep. "A few years ago," says Volksbuhne dramaturg Matthias Lilienthal, "we did a show in which there was absolutely no talking, no movement, nothing. So Murx isn't really all that radical."

The deluge of Russian absentees, now outnumbering those left watching the show, poured into the Baltic House cafe. "Maybe in Germany there are such horrors," shrieked one woman, "but, in our country, it never was like this."

In one corner, Marthaler, gently evanescent, is cradling a cup of coffee. He attempts to explain his indifference to the audience reaction: "I am a musician," he says, "I don't even like going to the theatre."

Aside from two years at the cole Jacques Le Coq in Paris, Marthaler received his education in various orchestra pits, performing the arduous task of grafting musical accompaniments on to the work of some of Germany's best directors. "I had to sit and watch so much bullshit," he says, "so many things that I don't like: uneven rhythms, unmusical rubbish. I took away everything from theatre that was repulsive to me, and this is all that was left."

Murx is set in a huge, bleak, shoddy hangar where the characters, a randomly selected group of 11, wile away the duration of the show. On the wall is a stopped clock and a slogan declaring: "Lest time stand still". Most of the show is an irresistible, hypnotic, vicarious window on to nothing: the shufflings, scratchings, stumblings and toilet rituals of the cast. Any fragments of plot that rudely intrude into the vacuum seem like gigantic, Richter-busting earthquakes: an anorexic bodybuilder terrorises a middle- aged woman with his microscopic muscles; a toupeed magician is derided by his incontinent wife; a slob obscenely plays with himself.

Marthaler immediately stamps out these dangerous narrative tendencies with music. Some songs are hilariously kitsch, particularly the rousing, domestic canticle "Danke fur die Guten Morgen." Others are explosively evocative: the Nazi hymn "Horstwassal Lieid" tinkles innocently from a musical watch; "Deutschland uber Alles" is stripped of lyrics to reveal Strauss underneath; the anthems of the DDR burn in two monumental incinerators recalling the sorriest period of German history.

All this is accompanied by some deliciously artful non-performances: "The secret," says Marthaler, "is getting the actors not to act."

Despite its eccentricity, the forces that drive Murx are relatively straightforward. Subtitled "A Patriotic Evening," it demonstrates the abmurksen - the doing away with - of the Eastern Europeans by the liberating forces of 1989. "We wanted to make a show about the opening of the East." says Marthaler, "What happened was a kind of colonisation: the West arrived and deposited its culture [and] economics. As a result, the whole of Eastern Europe began to turn like a centrifuge. A lot of people are just falling out. All I've done is to take these people and put them here on the stage."

The entire show, as indicated by the time on the frozen clock, takes place at the moment of unification. The characters are stranded, not knowing whether to step backwards into oblivion or forward into crippling uncertainty. "If these people in this terrible situation can just begin to sing for one moment, to sing beautiful songs, then perhaps they can find some hope," explains Marthaler. He isolates these cohesive musical forces, but they prove to be very dangerous: "On-stage, we see the songs mutate into nationalist, Nazi anthems. Many of the melodies possess great beauty, but they also have terrible associations for the German people." From the alluring nationalist refrains, through the burning anthems, to a final, beautiful piece of Yiddish klezmer music, Murx demonstrates how easy it is for bewildered people to turn - as is happening now in Russia - to the familiar cadences of ultra-nationalism, racism and neo-fascism.

However it is not the content of Murx, but its form, that leaves the deepest, most enduring impression. Marthaler approaches his work as a conductor, producing dissonances, atonal flourishes and long, long rests. "The text is just a part of the musical composition," he says. "It's not harmony. What I like is polyphony." In the two days of rehearsals in St Petersburg, he spent his time paring down the pauses, shaving away moments of silence, or adding fragments of vacuum: "If there is a big pause for maybe three minutes, the crazy thing is that if you make it 10 seconds shorter, it can become too long."

In making such a loose-limbed, infinitely open-ended piece of work, Marthaler's achievement has been spectacular. But despite its brilliant execution, the form and the structure of Murx certainly contributed to the careless misplacement in St Petersburg of two entire audiences. And not just any old audiences, but the subjects of the drama, those who might identify most with what it has to say. The problem was that in the Russian context, the presentation of the material in its raw, unreconstructed form can seem mocking, presumptuous, unproductive. "It is possible that for them it is too arrogant," Marthaler concedes. In his defence, though, he falls back on something of a post-modernist truism: "In this kind of show a conclusion would be bad. If you start to explain, then you can find yourself going down a very dangerous way." But he forgets that, with others willing to provide simplistic, lethal answers, staying silent can be much more dangerous.

When Murx premieres today at London's Three Mills Island Studios, it is unlikely that there will be such a level of audience migration. Bromley- by-Bow couldn't be called a hotspot of post-socialist discontent. In any case, the Living Theatre, Rauchenberg, Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor and Pina Bausch have all paved the way for Marthaler's latest virtuoso addition to the experimental canon.

Even if, from such an insulated distance, Murx has merely a nostalgic tinge, it will be a nostalgia flavoured with the most terrifying currents of this century's history. "I am Swiss," Marthaler says, "but what happens on stage comes from them, the East German cast. Some of the older actors were educated in the Nazi regime. They lived through the Second World War, were subjected to socialism, the cold war and now everything has changed radically again. The story is, in many ways, ready made. We just had to let it tell itself."

n Murx, 5-8 July at Three Mills Island Studios, Three Mill Lane, Bromley- by-Bow, London E3 (0171-312 1995)

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