Barry Otto and Bille Brown in The Histrionic | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

The Histrionic celebrates its contradictions. It’s a stinging attack that, beneath its barbs, hides a moving tribute to a damaged man. This production wisely acknowledges both the nastiness and the sentimentality at the heart of the play and is a more interesting work because of it.

Bruscon (Bille Brown), our eponymous histrionic, arrives at a run-down pig farm on a tour of his latest theatrical masterpiece. He is a megalomaniac, cruel to his own family (Jennifer Vuletic, Edwina Wren and Josh Price), whom he drags behind him in his majestic wake. He is equally monstrous to his hapless hosts (Barry Otto, Kelly Butler and Katherine Tonkin) who fail to fulfil his increasingly impossible demands.

Bruscon is the writer, director and star of a grand sweeping tragical-comical-historical play, The Wheel of History. He sneers at the Austrian township of Utzbach and its ramshackle stage, on which he is to perform his great work to a small audience of townsfolk and pigs.

He hates what his life has become, yet theatre is his passion and his drug. He needs us, his audience, and despises us at the same time. He is full of self-importance and wracked with self-doubt. All in all, he’s a horrible and sadistic figure, but this production exposes his vulnerability alongside his misanthropy.

The Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard shares many of the peculiar impulses of his protagonist, Bruscon. His relationship with the Austrian post-war cultural scene is echoed in Bruscon’s love/hate relationship with his craft. Both Bernard and Bruscon dismiss their audiences’ tastes while begging for their attention. Translator Tom Wright has clearly highlighted the parallels between the anti-art Austrian audiences and the contemporary Australian audience watching the play now.

Director Daniel Schlusser gives the production an unfinished quality. He takes the rhythms of the rehearsal room and layers the performances with a raw and broken-down quality. It’s a love letter to the act of theatre making and the egos that drive its creation.

The excellent design team (Marg Horwell, Paul Jackson and Darrin Verhagen) have taken over the entire theatrical space with a messy and cluttered aesthetic that allows the roughness of the production to thrive. It gives the other, mainly silent, actors the space to craft some beautifully observed interactions that fall outside Bruscon’s roaming gaze.

The work, almost a 90-minute monologue, belongs to Brown, who embraces the contradictions of his character. It’s a bravura performance that Brown makes the most of, avoiding easy sympathy and showing us a lonely, scared man hiding behind a succession of masks.

This is a terrific production that makes no concessions to its audience. Schlusser has created a deliberately rough and frayed portrait of a man who needs his audience desperately.

The theatrical stars have aligned to bring Brown and Bruscon together in an unforgettable performance of flawed beauty.

The details: The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher) plays the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until May 5 — tickets on the company website. The production then opens in Sydney at the Wharf 1 Theatre on June 20 — tickets on the company website.

(Visited 21 times, 1 visits today)