THEATRE / The casualties of war: Paul Taylor on Fatzer Material at the Gate, Notting Hill

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The Independent Culture
The soldiers remark that abandoning their tank is like a second birth to them, and that is certainly what the event resembles in Marc von Henning's striking staging of it at the Gate. The First World War tank is represented by a large metal box that grimly overhangs the bleak terrain on the stage. Emerging headfirst through a hole in the middle, these frontline military deserters are reborn into a desolate world which, in its very extremity, turns thoughts to revolution. Or, rather, turns Fatzer's thoughts that way. He and his comrades have been caught in the fighting for three years now, and he's learned that the real enemy is not in front of him, but behind.

Fatzer Material both is and very firmly isn't a play by Bertolt Brecht. Its contents are culled from a 550-page manuscript fragment (some fragment]) of scenes, dialogues, choruses, scenarios etc on which Brecht worked intermittently from 1927 until his death almost 30 years later. The selection and arrangement of the material into a 'text montage' are the work, though, of the playwright Heiner Muller. Brecht never intended it to be staged. So does Muller's unauthorised assemblage have sufficient resonance in its own right then, to justify his presumption?

As presented at the Gate, its irritatingly muffled narrative power is redeemed by flashes of extraordinary intensity. Many of these are generated by the vivid tensions in its protagonist, Fatzer (an unsparing Dan Jemmett), who goes to ground with his fellows in the town of Muhlheim and anticipates a revolution that is slow in coming. He's both a passionate consciousness-raiser and a man who seems to think that the human race has a design-fault and should be replaced by something better. Sure that revolution will come only if things get worse for the destitute and that it's a pity women can't have their comforting bolt-holes stitched, he is a greedy, womanising brawler, the only man in the group with initiative, but all too likely to be sidetracked when entrusted with a major responsbility, such as securing food.

In this filthy-vested chancer, Brecht gives eloquent witness to the war between deferred gratification for the sake of Utopia tomorrow and a frantic individualism that springs from the fear that one's whole existence will have been a preparation for what one will never see. If Fatzer subsumes elements of Brechtian heroes from Baal to Azdak, there's also a strange streak of Hamlet in the speculative anxieties that prevent him from committing himself to anything.

I quickly grew tired of the robotic chorus at their lecterns presenting the story's tragic course as a foregone conclusion. But Von Henning, who also translated the piece, produces some excellent staging ideas. In one sequence, the soldiers have sex in turn with the same reluctant woman, their use of her ritualised as a rebarbative procession. Each man walks up, sticks his face into the bowl of water between her upraised knees, taking a selfish slurp.

The reasons why the men feel compelled to kill Fatzer could be given greater emphasis, but the point that even though the war didn't butcher them 'in the tranquility of a quiet room we butcher each other' comes across with unblunted irony.

The Gate (071-229 5387)

(Photograph omitted)