Left – Bille Brown. Cover – Barry Otto and Bille Brown. Photos – Jeff Busby.
I often like to go into plays blind. I don't read reviews in great detail, I guess with the aim of keeping an open mind. Often I just go on who's in it/behind it and a rough synopsis. What appealed with The Histrionic was Bille Brown and Barry Otto on stage together in a play about an egotistic and histrionic actor.
However I feel to really get the most out of this absurdist comedy/drama, pre-show reading is definitely required, because rather than go in with an open mind I realised I had formed preconceptions; The Histrionic was not quite what I was expecting.
In the program (which I didn't read until after the show) is a story about the Austrian novelist and playwright staging his play The Ignoramus And The Madman at the Salzburg Festival in 1982. A complete two minute blackout was required including the emergency exit signs. The blackout was permitted for the preview, but on opening night the fire brigade prohibited it. The opening night went ahead without the blackout and was a huge hit, but Bernhard was outraged and cancelled the rest of the season. "A society that can't deal with two minutes of darkness," he announced in a letter to the festival's president, "can do without my play."
It seems arrogant and petty but it caused a storm of controversy and two years later Bernhard was back at the Salzburg Festival, at the very same theatre with The Histrionic, a play he used to tear shreds off the theatre, the theatre going audiences and Austrian society generally. The gall... the grand scale of the joke... hilarious, really.
Bille Brown as the central character, Bruscon, gives a dazzling performance. Bruscon is an actor with a towering ego and a lacerating attitude of tireless condescension. His arrogance knows no bounds, and for most of the hour and three quarters of the play he barely shuts up. He is preparing to open a show that is as comically ambitious as his drawn out enunciation, and that he is staging it in a crumbling little theatre is probably a statement of what the playwright thought of the Salzburg Festival and Austria generally. Naturally, the matter of the emergency exit lights being switched of is flogged throughout the play.
Thomas Bernhard had been branded a "nestbeschmutzer" (someone who dirties his own nest), and it's not hard to see why; he hated his home country, possibly all of Europe... probably all of humankind.
Not knowing the background, it was confusing to know just who was being lampooned here. Even knowing the background story it can be difficult knowing just what is going on. Bernhard once said something like, "Everything in life is ridiculous when you think of death," so it is probably fair to assume that absolutely everything is being made a mockery of here. Bruscon would appear to be the playwright's alter ego, yet he has made him insufferable and quite ridiculous.
The other great man of the Australian stage, Barry Otto, plays the theatre owner, and it's a strange sidekick of a character. Timid, weird, riddled with ticks and with a tiny fraction of the lines Bruscon delivers, yet he pulls it of with a kind of quirky, hypnotic effect. He seems to be enjoying himself immensely.
All the actors, Brucson's family with their assortment of impairments and injuries, are also wonderfully weird to watch as the great actor harrangues them one moment, whispers softly the next and occasionally physically brutalises them into confessing their admiration for him. Mostly, he is just unrelentingly brutal.
The stage and surrounds is a chaotic playpen of props, giving the impression that you have wandered into a mental asylum, an impression that doesn't quite go away as the chaos and destruction unfold.
In the end, this is a strange and unsettling work. It's wordy, has a lot to say. It's funny, dramatic, somehow an important work that's ultimately a bit of a joke at the same time.
If you do go and see it, do read the program the nice people at The Malthouse have kindly provided before you go into the theatre. Maybe even read a bit about Bernhard himself. If I had done this I might have gotten more out of it and enjoyed it even more than I did – and although on more than one occasion I wanted to jump up shout at Bruscon to just STFU – I did enjoy it. It's that kind of theatre.
Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company present
THE HISTRIONIC (DER THEATERMACHER)
by Thomas Bernhard | translated by Tom Wright
Directed by Daniel Schlusser
Venue: Merlyn Theatre | The Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: April 2 - May 5, 2012
Bookings: 03 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au