Photo by David Mark via Pixabay
On Theatre

Freedom fighters

The radical East German playwright Heiner Müller and Michael Frayn have a lot in common

Theatreland is fond of telling itself it changes the world, or would at least like to try. The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is a good vantage point from which to review the claim. In the heady days of early 1990, I watched an event the European theatre avant-garde had awaited with bated breath — a performance of Heiner Müller’s Hamlet- machine in his adopted East Germany. Here was the work that thrust Müller into the premier league of “post-dramatic” theatre, in a treatment of Shakespeare’s great play about the helplessness of intellectuals in the face of brute power.

His writing is often bewildering — a “mytho-historical collage” is the best self-description he mustered. Müller is hardly a household name (unless your household is in a theatre studies department) but any postmodern work or reference you’re likely to see today bears some trace of his legacy. The “Hamlet Actor” and the characters meander in and out of roles in prevarications, repetitions and excuses as the action unwinds. 

It is the play-within-a-play idea in psychotic form: a mirror image of the original with structure stripped away. There are premonitions of Quentin Tarantino’s gore in the violence: blood sweeps out from under a fridge and jangling Pink Floyd chords overwhelm a scene of Hamlet’s mental dissolution.

The dramatist, who died in 1995, was a permanent revolutionary, as much against state communism — his work had been restricted in the East since he annoyed the censor in 1961 — as against capitalism. He also deployed mordant wit about his own work, sorely missed in an era of dramatists who speak today in grinding political cliché. Asked what he would regard as a central issue in his writing, he replied, “How should I know, and if I knew why should I tell you?” When the reporter ploughed on in search of “the interests you pursue in your writing”, Müller shot back, “See above.”

It is easy to forget what “challenging theatre” meant to audiences watching plays under a censor, a line which Shakespeare also trod under the patronage and constraint of Elizabeth I. I remember an electrifying Hamlet production staged at Dubrovnik castle with the premier cru cast of Daniel Day-Lewis, Brian Cox and Judi Dench, shortly before the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991. The theme of a kingdom dismembered and bloody ambition riding roughshod over civilian interests hung heavy in the air (even if the critics recall it mainly for Day-Lewis hitting his head so loudly on the stone walls in a madness scene that we heard a sickening crack and Dame Judi had to tend to him with a damp towel afterwards).

Hamlet held particular power in its ellipses and hidden meanings. The performance I watched in the dying East Germany featured a daring pause in the line “Something is rotten in the state . . . ”, followed after several breath-holding beats, by “of Denmark.” The audience thrilled to the forbidden allusion.

In one of the great dramatic ironies of stage history, by the time Hamletmachine hit the stage at the Deutsches Theater in 1990, East German audiences had become accustomed to theirg new freedoms and German unification was on the way. Müller watched his epoch-defining work performed to half-empty houses as Germany’s great drama played out in the streets and bars of the united Berlin.

All of this would have made excellent fodder for another master of mischievous deconstruction, Michael Frayn, whose oeuvre spans the brilliant Copenhagen (on the scientific quandaries of quest for the nuclear bomb) and Democracy (based on the penetration of chancellor Willy Brandt’s office by an East German spy). But I am going to nominate his comedy-farce Noises Off as the prime example of four decades of Frayn’s work, because it deals with the tropes of comic theatre every bit as mercilessly as Müller questioned the grandiose claims of the craft to unseat the powerful.

Presently revived at the Garrick, Noises Off is, as one American critic nicely put it, “the Mount Everest of farce” in which we witness the action alternately from the gaze of the stalls in an ill-fated technical rehearsal and then see the set flipped around and watch the action and a mounting series of pratfalls from backstage. 

Frayn’s satirical target in 1985 was provincial theatre’s reliance on a set menu of farce about illicit liaisons. But the lasting power of the piece is its study of the inherent fragility of the theatre and the fine line it treads nightly between success and a plate of sardines getting stuck to the hands of an actor or the impact of offstage betrayals on the action.

 Müller said his “obsession with Hamlet” made him want to “murder the play” by dissection, while knowing that this is an impossible task. We remain, like the characters stuck inside the drama of our history, whether we like it or not. Frayn reminds us that the real farce of life lies in the gap between our aspirations and their outcomes, not just under the footlights. Two brilliant, contrasting writers, they sawed away at the boughs of stage tradition, leaving us fine, troublesome plays in the rubble.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover