Theatre Review | Die (S)panische Fliege flies high

It is not often that I say (or even think) this, but I am so very relieved we didn’t have to see any naked people. Contemporary German theatre seems unwilling to put on a show without laying at least one actor bare. That, or it buries you under its heap of heavy-going, naval-gazing, politically-relevant conceptual mud. And usually it does both.

Yes – Herbert Fritsch has been known to take his clothes off on stage, and frequently at that. But now he is in his 60s, a rising directorial star, and apparently his version of growing up is poking holes at the inflated theatrical establishment.

Ultra-conceptualised political theatre that has been mediated and remediated over and over again does not interest him. “The fundamental driving force of theatre is entertainment, even when it is telling a sad story!” he likes to proclaim.

To be fair – his staging of slapstick classic 'Die (S)panische Fliege' (the Spanish/panicky fly) was not only entertaining, but also a serious workout for all muscles contracted for laughter. But I’ll take an inadvertent training session any day of the week.

When actors-cum-comedians-cum-playwrights Arnold and Bach wrote the 'Die (S)panisch Fliege' in 1913, it was already funny, with all the knee-slapping, head-shaking and infrequently unpredictable word-play jokes, with all the overdrawn stock characters (the devious servant, the foolish old men, the debauched Casanova) and with all the entirely unlikely contractions of plot you would expect from a comedy of errors – a narrative style where the story develops out of a series of misunderstandings and talking-past-each-others.

In this case it’s Ludwig Klinke, a mustard baron who attempts to prevent his one-night stand with a dancer (and an apparent son spawned from the union) 25 years earlier from coming to light and does everything in his powers to fail.

But Fritsch and the Berliner actors take the idea of commedia dell’arte style exaggeration and distortion further still: a huge trampoline at the centre back of the stage is only the most obvious of all indicators that (hey!) is this not actually a circus?

Maybe, though from my balcony seat it looked more like a puppet show.

Except that it’s more difficult. With so many bodies’ movement, constant jumping, sliding, hopping, dancing, jiggling and wiggling to be co-ordinated, it is astonishing to see the actors get the timing so perfectly right – and make the Skuespilhuset tremble with our laughter as they do.

While Mr Klinke tries to sweep his illegitimate child under the carpet – and literally so, since the stage design is a giant rug – other actors routinely leave the stage to hide, bump into the wall or simply rest on the floor at the feet of the ones lucky enough to sit in the first rows, yet others break the fourth wall in order to read their own lines from the Danish supertitles.

And when I start going into such details, I believe it is time to admit that such masterfully executed comedy and highly stylised physical theatre does not lend itself well to the typed word, and play the 'you should have been there' card.

And no amount of nakedness can make up for that.

"Die (S)panische Fliege"


Guest performance by Volksbühne, Berlin

Royal Theatre

Saturday 8 & Sunday 9 March

In German with Danish supertitles