Is violence ever meaningless? When a punctual, conscientious and to all appearances innocuous bank clerk viciously murders one of his colleagues with an axe, there is no motive of which to speak. Yet the man who is to prosecute him in court, a man who has always felt that there is something missing in his own life, seems to understand this senseless crime better than the murderer himself.
Although Max Frisch’s disturbing play waited fifty years for its British premiere last year in the hands of Cerberus Theatre, who are also at the helm of this reprise at the Arcola Theatre, its themes are chillingly resonant for a society that seems to be questioning its meaning. While there may not be axe-wielding men roaming the streets, the violence that tore through our cities last summer seemed just as empty, shocking and motiveless as that enacted by the bored bank clerk.
In Frisch’s compellingly strange parable, public prosecutor and anarchic hero Martin quite literally takes up the axe, continuing a cause that the murderer did not even realise he had initiated. This seemingly disturbed man is convincingly portrayed by Simon Norbury, at moments perfectly lucid and rational and at others positively maniacal. He is seized by the fairytale of the eponymous Count Oederland, a mythical axeman, and begins to ruthlessly chop his way to freedom from the daily grind, gathering a collection of supporters along the way.
Yet Frisch seems to be suggesting that individual freedom can never be achieved from the moment any sort of movement is mounted. Martin’s frenzied crusade as the Count is a case of myth made man, a transformation that can never be successful. While Count Oederland remains a sinister, determinedly non-ideological legendary presence, the bewildered Martin is left with the very opposite of freedom: power.
The action is also suffused with satire, directing blows at those in power which seem particularly painful at this moment in time. It is easy to see why Martin and his followers want to escape from the government’s “madhouse of order”, a surveillance state that demands its citizens to present ID cards at every turn and purports to protect the public from the “enemies of freedom”. The parallels, one suspects, are not coincidental.
The drama, however, goes far beyond politics and into much more philosophical territory, in a production that draws attention to the play’s surrealist elements. The heightened reality of Christopher Loscher’s direction, extracting performances that often veer close to caricature, unsettlingly explores the contours between dream and reality. Is the fairy-like girl who appears under numerous guises, all played with an ethereal spark by Evelyn Adams, merely a product of Martin’s fevered imagination? Where do fairytale and reality collide? What is real and what is imagined?
Do not expect answers to Frisch’s questions to be forthcoming. While political theatre continues to fill our stages, it is refreshing and disturbing in equal measures to see a play that sets forth a figure who is naked of any ideological trappings. Cerberus have produced a strange, disquieting theatrical experience and one that is not easily brushed aside.