Theatre: MURX LIFT, Three Mills Island, Bromley-by-Bow

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The Independent Culture
The writing is on the wall, in large plastic letters. In a huge, bleak, strip-lit room, which could be a government waiting-room or a hospital day-room or a factory canteen, 12 pitiful, derelict characters sit waiting at scattered tables. The clock has stopped. The plastic slogan on the wall falls to the ground, letter by letter. Periodically, the company breaks spontaneously into the first line of an old song, but gets no further than that. They wait and we wait. A man in a grey overalls checks the radiators and stokes the boiler. They sing that line again.

When, a good 10 minutes into the show, still nothing has happened but all around audience-members are leaning forward and smiling, you know you are in for an extraordinary event. The Swiss director, Christoph Marthaler, is under the tutelage of Frank Castorf, the wild man of East German theatre, who shocked audiences with his brutalist school of deconstructed classics (Ibsen with orgies and rock guitars) and has now been appointed to run the Volksbuhne, West Berlin's theatre for "art for the people" founded in 1914.

In Murx, no concessions are made to anyone, least of all the audience. The characters, dressed, like the set, in unmistakable Eastern bloc drabness, never interact except in grotesque parodies of communication. A young man with descending trousers pays ridiculous court to a frump who sits unmoved with handbag on knees. A middle-aged couple who never look at each other bicker over the poisoning of a dog. Others indulge in occasional slapstick and meaningless routines. Yet every now and then, together, their voices swell into sublime renditions of German songs. Sometimes they are folk songs which evoke a rural idyll starkly in contrast to the reality; sometimes they are Yiddish wedding songs. Sometimes they are rousing songs of love for the Fatherland, in which the collectively buried past suddenly erupts into the open. At one point they all sing Schubert's String Quartet No 1 with devastating sweetness, before a buzzer sounds and another pointless ritual is carried out.

In Marthaler's vision of reunification, change is just not happening. The Wall may be falling outside, but nobody is coming in to tell these hopeless individuals, and they are too possessed by indifference and lassitude to seek change themselves. It is a message of brutal nihilism, virulently accusatory and, after two and a quarter hours, almost intolerable to watch.

But, despite its lack of human compassion, Murx does convey a truth about a society caught in a state of absolute stasis. It is a theatrical experience that is not easily forgotten, and after all, truth is supposed to be painful to see.

n 'Murx' runs until 8 July (booking: 0171-312 1995)