The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher) by Thomas Bernhard.
Directed by Daniel Schlusser, Malthouse Theatre, May 4, 2012
I don’t want to be too negative about shit I don’t like, but, man, I found the Malthouse production of Thomas Bernhard’s play, The Histrionic, a chore — this interminable, pretentious piece of crap failed on almost every level (I know, a whole heap of learned pundits think it’s the real deal, but I’ve got to be honest, dear readers). Basically, the piece is little more than an excruciatingly long monologue delivered by an authoritarian thespian — one Bruscon who torments and tortures those around him with outrageous demands and snide remarks. Bruscon is a bully. He commands the stage to such an extent that the supporting cast are little more than decorative foils for his childish tantrums, and sadistic wit. No doubt, the theatre is full of little Hitler’s — Bruscon certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to a few of the theatre bods I’ve had the displeasure to know over the years. You know the type, the theatre industry is full of them — whiney, pompous fools convinced of their own genius, and full of contempt for those lesser mortals incapable of helping realise their artistic vision. And, of course, the resemblance between the tyrannical thespian, and the failed art student with the signature tash is no coincidence — Austria, nay, the world, is full of little Hitlers, get it?
Here’s the basic premise: Bruscon wanders into a provincial town with his dysfunctional family in tow. He’s apparently agreed to work in a somewhat rustic theatre in order to stage his magnum opus — a piece of work that requires a total blackout for its finale to be effective. Almost immediately, he insults the ‘landlord’ and then insists on getting permission to turn off the theatre’s exit signs during his proposed performance, a request that has been denied in the past, presumably in more extravagant and well-resourced surrounds. According to the program notes, Thomas Bernhard once made a similar request, and when it was denied, no doubt on occupational health and safety grounds, he through a massive hissy fit, and cancelled the show. The character of Bruscon, then, is perhaps an exaggerated version of the acclaimed German playwright. So, The Histrionic is an exercise if self-deprecating myth busting, maybe.
The problem with the play is that the satire just doesn’t hit the mark. Once Bernhard establishes that Bruscon represents the pretentiousness, and hubris of the over inflated artistic ego it’s pretty much game over. The play is incredibly repetitive, and fails to make any insightful connections between its insular, self-reflexive observations about the theatre and its double. After 15 minutes, even the dimmest globe in the lighting rig knows where this work is going, and that’s downhill. What’s worse, this exceedingly long ride is made even more tedious because Bruscon is played as an oaf with almost no degree of awareness of his monstrous personality, so it’s very difficult to feel any sort of empathy for him or his predicament. Not this this would have made the work any better, for I suspect that the real difficulty I had with the play was that it was just not outrageous enough. Maybe the text was badly translated, or maybe I just don’t get German/Austrian humour! All cheap racial stereotypes aside, I know German language Playwrights can be funny — anyone remember Peter Handke?
The staging doesn’t help matters. On entering the performance space, the audience is confronted by actors milling about a large, ugly set filled with an assortment of what I guess are art objects — sculptures of human figures, large birds, grotesque paintings, oversized props. The play begins while the house lights are still up, which accentuates the fluid boundary between stage and spectators. The lighting plot becomes more conventionally theatrical as the play progresses. This, no doubt, is a deliberate ploy designed to solidify the theatrical frame, and give this rambling piece of dross a semblance of structure. I generally like meta-theatre. That is, theatre that reflects on its own status as an artificial mode of representation. Whereas, Beckett, Pirandello and Handke, to name the most obvious exponents of the technique, manage to make shrewd observations about the world as stage, Bernhard, or at least this production of Bernhard’s play, just comes across as a self-indulgent mess. What’s more, I’m staggered by the general praise this heap of crap has garnered from the literati. Ok, I’m going to stick my neck out and not only call this crock a crock, but put the proposition that we, as a community, have got to stop pissing in the pockets of the small coterie of histrionics who appear to have carved up Australia’s main stage empire amongst themselves. Please, keepers of the Malthouse theatre, put on some shit that matters!
I’m just trying to provide a bit of balance here, folks. I was enticed to see this play on the strength of the hyperbolic reviews it received. If this production represents state of the art theatre, I might have to spend more of my hard earned in the cinema (where I find shit I like on a more regular basis). Did I miss something? Please, do tell.