Thomas Bernhard’s The Histrionic is a rude piece of theatre. Directed by Daniel Schlusser, it started out at the Malthouse in Melbourne and is now on at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). It’s the story of Austrian national treasure, Bruscon (Bille Brown), who is unwillingly touring his Wheel of History through the countryside and has found himself in the damp and unfriendly pig-rearing town of Utzbach.
Bernhard wrote the play as a response to an OH&S enthusiast prohibiting him from turning off the theatre exit lights for two minutes during a production of The Ignoramus and the Madman in 1982. In The Histrionic, Bernhard responds by having Bruscon obsess over the exit lights and insult the fire warden. It is Bernhard’s way of saying that Austria is a backwater full of pigsties, or more eloquently, “a pimple on the arse of Europe.” In this way the play is an Austrian in-joke, designed to insult and provoke his local audience. There is a mutual dependence between state and dissident and Bernhard has a particular role in Austrian culture. He does not have that same status in Australia, so the play has to stand on its own, without the context of Bernhard the provocateur.
Even with the mitigating influence of geographic distance, the piece is still fairly brutal. Bruscon calls actors liars, the wider society a bunch of suburbanite cretins and criticises main stage theatres for their pomposity and elitism. Brown’s excellent characterisation of Bruscon is so well rounded as to be confusing; he is capable on the one hand of charm, wit and sense but then sadism, vulgarity and stupidity on the other. The character of Bruscon is itself a condemnation of the self-importance of theatre making. Marg Horwell’s set is a wonderfully kitsch insult to anyone who likes cool-looking theatre. It’s then an odd choice of programming from STC, considering the play’s main target is institutions like the STC. Perhaps it’s an attempt to acquire some of the legitimacy that comes with being attacked.
Whatever the reason for the programming, we should be glad it’s made its way to Sydney. It’s a fascinating piece, (although maybe limited to those interested in theatre making) and Schlusser’s direction ensures that the comedy provided by Brown and Barry Otto’s performances is balanced by a good dose of genuine darkness: an abortive mutiny attempt midway through is truly exhilarating and terrifying. Tom Wright’s adaptation would have us extrapolate the kitsch, xenophobic Austrian culture to Australia — which is not too much of a stretch.
Image by Ellis Parrinder.