Left – Edwina Wren and Bille Brown. Cover – Josh Price, Katherine Tonkin, Barry Otto and Bille Brown. Photos – Jeff Busby
The Histrionic is a bizarre play. I found it hard to know quite what to make of it. On the surface, it seems a simple story – a narcissistic actor touring what he thinks is his meisterwerk around to small theatres in pubs and being thoroughly horrified by the fact that everything is not perfect. But it is a strange play – hard to get into and at the same time oddly compelling.
The linear story is interspersed with wacky interludes (at one point, a giant reindeer statue is decapitated) and is peppered with minor characters – some of them so minor that I wasn't quite sure why they were included. The play is dominated by the figure of Bruscon (Bille Brown), an actor who has taken it upon himself to write his Wheel Of History (a comedy, which is also a tragedy, in a somewhat Chekhovian turn). And perhaps the reason that I found The Histrionic such a difficult play to evaluate was the fact that Bruscon was so thoroughly unlikeable. He is meant to be unlikeable, of course, and there is absolutely no reason why a show's protagonist has to be likeable. But because he is such a dominant figure in this play, he is really the only window we have into its world, and so it presents a major barrier to be overcome.
The central conceit of The Histrionic is that Bruscon, having written a play which is a sweeping history of the world, is concerned almost exclusively with the incredibly menial: if the emergency exit signs are not extinguished in the play's final black out, he moans, then the whole piece will be meaningless. This also provides the basis for a lot of the humour, and it works quite well, but because it is such a major plot point, it loses some of its power through overuse. However, nothing about The Histrionic happens in moderation (even the set is oversize) – the fun of the play lies in how over-the-top it is.
That said, there can be no doubt that Bille Brown delivers an absolute tour de force performance. He is audacious, ostentatious, over-the-top but not so over-the-top it becomes ridiculous – he plays a man who is essentially a caricature without resorting to caricature, which is something rare indeed. The Histrionic is worth seeing for Brown's performance alone (though I'd also put in a good word for the set – if you like your plays to feature giant carrots and ice cream cones, this is the play for you).
I'm not sure The Histrionic is a show for everyone. While Bille Brown's performance is spectacular by any standards, I think it will appeal to a certain sense of humour, and an appreciation of excess and the strange in its audience.
Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre present
The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher)
by Thomas Bernhard | translated by Tom Wright
Director Daniel Schlusser
Venue: Wharf 1 Theatre | Pier 4 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
Dates: 20 June – 28 July, 2012
Tickets: $79 – $40