Bille Brown and Barry Otto in The Histrionic | Wharf 1

I don’t get it. Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett are the co-artistic directors of Sydney Theatre Company. They program the work so, presumably, apart from commercial considerations, that implies some enthusiasm or passion for the plays they choose. They might both be shy, but they’re the artistic directors of STC. So, to see them make their way to the podium, on opening night, and merely mispronounce the names of cast and crew, doesn’t strike me as nearly good enough. And I’m surprised there aren’t things they’re champing at the bit to say. After all, their programme notes are, typically, thoughtful, articulate, assertive and quite outspoken. I don’t get it.

Anyway, we’ve gathered here today to review Thomas Bernhard’s 1984 (he died just five years later) play, The Histrionic. Bernhard was born in The Netherlands, but died in Austria, a country (along with Poland and Germany) he loved and lived to mock and taunt, not least in this play. It earned him the pejorative of nestbeschmutzer there; one who dirties, rather than feathers, his own nest. He was a provocateur, rampant sociopolitical critic and scandal-maker. I like him. I like him a lot.

The Histrionic sets out to and succeeds (in the manner of nothing succeeds, or exceeds, like excess) in ridiculing everything about theatre. It keeps metronomic time with Bernhard’s overarching, or underpinning philosophy, espoused when he received an award, thus: ‘Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of death.’ He was nothing, if not uncompromising and this is very much at the centre of The Histrionic: through the main character, he’s bitterly critical of the Germanic propensity towards perfectionism, as well as his own personal one. In the telling, Bruscon might be talking specifically of the theatre, but Bernhard knew as well as anyone and, probably, better than most, that all the world’s a stage.

Despite Cate and Andrew’s apparent lack of, or at least failure to express it on opening night, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and vigour behind this production. It was Melbourne director Daniel Schlusser who took it to the power pair. He had strong ideas, early on. He wanted Tom Wright to translate. He wanted Bille Brown to be Bruscon. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. He got both. How Wright he was to plum for Tom as translator. I haven’t read it in German, of course (my high school linguistic hamburgerfistedness isn’t up to it), but I can’t imagine Bernhard’s original could be any more incisive, in any sense. This is downright surgical, as if Bernhard has passed Wright the scalpel.

Schlusser was also dead-on to opt for Brown. Not Bryan, I stress, but Bille, who’s a repellent Bruscon, just as he should be. His momentum never flags, which is a Herculean call, as I don’t think he ever leaves the stage. He is larger than life. An actor playing an actor is always piquant, but Brown makes it seriously pungent.

In his excellence, Brown isn’t alone. Barry Otto is there, as the offbeat, tic-ridden, accommodating landlord, complying with every whim of the arrogant theatre-maker. Otto infuses his performance with a recognisable naturalism, but taken to cartoonish proportions. It’s wonderful.

Kelly Butler’s role, as the landlady, isn’t large, but she takes every opportunity to expand it when it arises. It’s a robust performance and she has real presence. Meanwhile, Josh Price, as the idiot son, Ferrucio, attracts both empathy and disdain, balancing them precariously, like spinning plates, such that we feel embarrassed for him, yet inevitably guilty when we cruelly laugh, as we must.

Edwina Wren’s Sarah, Bruscon’s long-suffering daughter, returns something of his devil-may-care dismissiveness, when she’s not toying with his affections. Between the two, we have an in-depth thesis on manipulation, echoed by the oft-mentioned portrait of Hitler which still hangs on the wall.

Jennifer Vuletic is Bruscon’s monosyllabic, slightly demented, hypochondriac wife, who spends most of her time welded to an oxygen mask or other respiratory accoutrement. Hers, too, is a characterful and colourful performance. Kath Tonkin is Erna, partially blinded by glaucoma and as one-eyed as Nazism as a result. She is mostly oblivious to the pain and angst around her, just like the Germanic nations during that minorscuffle of the late thirties to mid forties.

A metaphorical motif that arises early in the play is Bruscon’s capricious, dictatorial insistence that, during a crucial blackout, even the emergency exit lights must be extinguished. This self-referenced the postmodern playwright’s mischievous, control-freakish behaviour with regard to The Ignoramus And The Madman, which predated The Histrionic by a couple of years. Thank God he could, it seems, laugh at himself, as well as everyone else.

At the time though, his return invitation to the Salzburg festival, where the fire department vetoed his season of blackouts, was like baiting a bear, for his revenge was built-in to Der Theatermacher, as The Histrionic is also called. (It’s predecessor’s name, in retrospect, seems to be rather prescient.)

His wild extrapolations might have caused Austrians to swallow hard but, of course, now he’s gone, now he no longer poses a threat, his plays are veritably omnipresent, across the small-but-virile German-speaking world. And, if we’re to be brutally honest (and politically incorrect, perhaps), his contention (or Bruscon’s, but what’s the difference?) that a link exists between the banality of Austrian theatre and bigotry of Austrian history is not necessarily such a long bow to draw.

Bruscon pulls into a provincial town with his small, indentured entourage, consisting of his wife, son and daughter. From the first he complains and rails against provincialism, including that, according to him, still evident in his wife, the chronically asthmatic daughter of a bricklayer: a clearcut case of you can take the girl away from the bricklayer, but you can’t take the bricklayer away from the girl. His son is an imbecile (again, at least according to him); the son’s shambolic uncertainty probably the result of being hounded all the way to adulthood. And there is an incestuous air to his relationship with his daughter who, by turns, cops a similar beating to the other two family members.

This is a nuclear family in the explosive sense. And this is an explosive play.

I was alarmed, however, by the po-faced responses of many of those assembled to see it on the night. They looked worried. I wonder why intense and intensive criticism causes us so much angst. Shaking the foundations is good. It’s healthy, in the long run, for the individual (if I was truly old-fashioned, I might succumb to ‘character-building’). And a lot healthier still for democracy.

Bernhard is prickly. I like him. I like him a lot. As I do this play. And this production. Ausgezeichnet! (That’s German for kick-arse.)

The details: The Histrionic plays Wharf 1 until July 28. Tickets on the STC website.

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