Thomas Bernhard is one of the greatest writers of the postwar period and his novels, with their complex vituperative repetitions, their intimations of an anger so self-consuming it becomes comical (though artfully and profoundly so), manage to encompass a world of complex feeling under the cloak of an outraged, ongoing rant. It is as if Dostoyevsky had spent his entire novelistic career doing variations on the theme and vocal gesticulation of Notes from the Underground.
But this Austrian master was not just a novelist. Like Dostoyevsky his fiction reaches for the condition of drama but, unlike him, he actually wrote plays. This great master of the vitriol of the German language, who claimed to detest his fellow Austrians as the worst kind of Nazis and Catholics (using the two terms as if they were interchangeable), the man Updike described as addressing the reader the way Hitler addressed the folk, also had his plays performed at the Salzburg Festival, no less, that high seat of establishment culture.
Well, The Histrionic takes Bernhard’s experience of the theatre as its donee and proceeds to eviscerate it and then consume it and regurgitate it with maximum brutalistic indecorousness. Yes, but with every tatter of ambiguity trailing behind it like the unreliable memory of a lost classicism: it is rotten with nostalgia for the romance of the theatre and it also performs the most savage dance imaginable by way of a critique of its own unsteady shreds of feeling.
The Histrionic is performed in a co-production by the Malthouse and the Sydney Theatre Company in a riveting and raucously camp rendition directed by Daniel Schlusser which makes literal the theatricality of the work by putting the audience on the edge of the heat and dust. It is placed on a massive three-quarter edged wooden dais and the text, adapted by Tom Wright, is, in the minor roles (wife, daughter, son etc, who might almost be extrusions of the main character’s consciousness) rendered with a deliberately wooden anti-actorish affectlessness, like post-modern protests against the bravura and the brouhaha. This is not true of Barry Otto who provides a marvellously harassed and dim-witted vignette as the landlord. And nor is it true of the central performance, the part without which anyone else would be less than the footnotes of walking shadows, the role of Bruscon, the great actor manager, who is played with an incandescent grandeur, by turns pure ham and rancid bathos, by that magniloquent and fruity old trouper, Bille Brown. It is a performance of transfixing power and reverberation and in the context of this restlessly confident and impressively over-reaching production, it represents an almost poignant homage to the old theatre on the part of the new.
But mirror on mirror is all the show here and the overall effect of The Histrionic is captivating and confronting at the same time, as if the theatre had been reconfigured as a form of circus and the audience was expected to relish the sawdust and the acrobatics of the consequent inadequacy. Bille Brown as the actor is elephantine and awesome and anyone who cares about the theatre should come to see the man who Geoffrey Rush considers his peer in one of the performances of his life.
They were there from every corner of the theatre-going world. Young Anna Samson, such a star in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Day One. Jane Montgomery Griffiths, the one-time British actress turned classicist who is now treading the boards again. Peter Rose, the editor of Australian Book Review who has a new book of poetry out and his partner Christopher Menz who used to run the gallery in South Australia. And, sitting right at the front, visible in the lights that engulfed us, was Miranda Otto, so still and stylish that you could see why Hollywood turns to her.
And The Histrionic was the parodic repayment of every investment and shortfall because the play is such a demolition of the expectations it provokes.
But also – this is always the trick with Bernhard – such a reinstatement of the magic its savagery derides.
A great gasbag of an actor manager finds himself in the kind of Alpine provincial town that still has a picture of Hitler in its town hall, less out of Nazi atavism than total inertia. He shouts like a lunatic for a blackout of the exit sign, for frittata soup, for curtains of a colour that won’t enrage his eye. He derides his wife as a hypochondriac with the traces of a bricklayer’s daughter’s accent, he screams at his son and daughter because they can’t bring to life the dialogue of his huge historical epic (and in this production they can’t act for toffee) and the play itself sounds like Karl Kraus or Heiner Muller reduced to verbiage. He describes the theatre as the most fatuous of pseudo-artistic infatuations and he embodies the folly (in which neither we nor he believe) in a toad-bellied sarabande of nihilism and Schadenfreude.
The Histrionic is one of Bernhard’s dances of death with the nature of illusion and the idiocy that comes from finding this pathway to the truth a charming stroll.
It is discernibly – and in spite of whatever embellishments Tom Wright may have dabbled with and notwithstanding the brutalism with which Schlusser’s production makes the world of the theatre dirty and real – a masterpiece and it is to the enduring credit of this team that they have brought it to the stage with such vision and such life.
It’s Bille Brown’s show and he is by turns resplendent and repellent through every horrifying caper of lovey-ness, every tissue-tantrum of pseudo-nihilism, forever stacking a turn. It is a fine performance full of tone, colour and risk, of verbal beauty and human ugliness.
It is very fine and it will get better. There are moments, in the midst of it, when you hunger for the pure steel of the acting of Brown’s friend Ian McKellen – thinking of him in Strindberg, thinking of him as Lear – that resolution he has that allows him histrionically to find the truth at any cost.
Bille Brown doesn’t – yet – have quite that level of savagery but he has everything else. And in the final moments of this production when the magic comes and then explodes, the effect is both nightmarish and moving. And when we see Bille Brown as he takes his bow, amid the rapture of the audience, he is suddenly, as if by miracle, reduced to the humanity of the actor who strives for a condition of complete simplicity. And this too seems part of the show, or its aftertaste, and the effect is complex. As if the blackhearted Bernhard had only wanted to move us all along.
The Histrionic is at the Malthouse Theatre until 5 May, then at the Sydney Theatre Company 20 June to 28 July