Daniel Schlusser has brought a challenging satire by Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard to the Malthouse Theatre. The director of The Histrionic, starring Bille Brown and Barry Otto, spoke to Australian Stage's Carol Middleton.



Daniel SchlusserDaniel Schlusser's dream of bringing The Histrionic to the stage in Australia has come to fruition. I spoke to him after the first of eight previews at the Malthouse Theatre, leading up to opening night on Tuesday 10 April.

Schlusser said the audience responded well to this difficult work, which 'plays an unusual game with the audience, putting them offside and then bringing them back up'. An exotic satire, which uses melodrama mixed with the Austrian obsession with the hunt, swings between hilarity and a cruel underbelly. Although Thomas Bernhard is a giant of European theatre who died in the late 1980s, The Histrionic is the first professional production of a Bernhard play in Australia.

According to Schlusser, one of the reasons for this is that the job of translating this Austrian play, with its idiosyncratic language and wordplay, is challenging. Another reason is that The Histrionic demands a lead actor to run the equivalent of an Olympic marathon in remembering and delivering endless monologues over almost two hours. It was only when Schlusser realised that Bille Brown was capable of this feat, and of performing the emotional gymnastics required of the role, that he approached the Malthouse with the idea of staging the The Histrionic.

Schlusser has worked in theatre in Germany and Austria and has an affinity with European theatre. But it was Vienna-born actor and theatre maker Justus Newmann, famous as the youngest King Lear ever and now resident in Tasmania, who introduced Schlusser to the work of Bernhard and other Austrian satirical playwrights and became a mentor for the younger Australian director.

Schlusser believes this Austrian satire translates well to Australia. 'It may have more bite in Austria, where Bernhard's loathing for his fellow countrymen and for the Austrian bureaucracy hits a raw nerve with audiences, but it still works as a lighter satire here, with its attacks on provincialism and its parody of actors and directors.'

Apparently the actors, including Bille Brown and Barry Otto, love the novelty of the play. Initially they approached their roles with terror and elation, but are now relishing the opportunity to clown and play with the audience. In Brown, Schlusser has chosen an actor who has the 'acute brain' and depth of understanding to play the role of Bruscon, the insufferably egotistical actor who finds himself expected to perform in a small rural community. Otto sounds like the perfect foil for the protagonist. He plays the landlord, a naïve soul who tries to meet Bruscon's demands, but is little more than a silent observer who rarely gets a word in.

In spite of the endless monologues, this absurd play has a strong storyline and performs a balancing act 'between comic brushstrokes and the existential'. It takes its metaphors from the theatre, playing with everyday clichés that had their origins in the theatre world, such as exiting stage left and waiting in the wings, and weaving them into the overarching theme of fiction and reality.

Schlusser sees The Histrionic as belonging to the theatre of the absurd, or 'Samuel Beckett in a different key'. In his view, it is more entertaining than a Beckett play, but also blacker, 'like an Austrian dessert, light and frothy on top with an underside of chocolate sludge.' Perhaps this is the high-calorie fare that Melbourne audiences are waiting for.


The Histrionic by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Daniel Schlusser is now playing at Malthouse Theatre until May 5, 2012. Details»


Image credit: Margaret Swan


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