In fairness to all, this should be a very long, carefully thought out and even more carefully worded response to last night’s premiere of The Histrionic (written by the Austrian Thomas Bernhard and translated by the Melbournian-cum-Sydneysider Tom Wright – resident brain at the Sydney Theatre Company). But it’s not. I am pushing this out beginning at 7am the next morning in an effort to the first critic to give this play and its production the thumbs down. In the hurry I am possibly going to break all or some (of my version of) the rules of criticism I have laid out so carefully over many posts on this site. For starters the grandiose opening statement served unprepared. What we sat through last night was utter rubbish – folly from the moment it was agreed (by whom?) to create a production of this (to our culture) infantile play to the utterly predictable performance from Bille Brown (not his fault) in the lead role (it’s effectively a two-hour monologue) and the over-produced spoilt-brat production rendered by Melbournian-cum-Berliner Daniel Schlusser. Another f8cking rococo-auteur flung from the hurdy gurdy of Melbourne’s art-theatre scene into the embrace of Sydney’s mainstage theatre practice. I’ve got nothing against Barrie Kosky or Simon Stone. Who has been a greater champion of their work than me? But a third in Schlusser? Toss in the equally (or more or less) gifted/problematic Benedict Andrews – who bids/bodes (not from Melbourne) from Adelaide – that Athens in the south. But who shares with the other three an obsession with making Australian versions of German theatre. Whether that is German (specifically Berlin) theatre of the present or of a decade or two ago I can’t say. Last time I was in Berlin the Wall was still up – bricks and all.
Bille Brown as the thesbian Bruscon & Barry Otto as the Landlord: photo by Jeff Busby
In fairness, documentation exists which indicates Schlussser has created much good work back home – Melbourne – that little fraying vestige of Mittel-Europe where you are corrected by the waiter if you mispronounce ‘jambon’. I am being a smart-arse. To give the director true credit, go read Alison Croggon‘s rave (and excellently argued) review of The Histrionic which opened at the Malthouse on 11 April 2012 – a few weeks back basically.
The Histrionic is a play written by a very talented Austrian – who both loved and lashed his homeland in a manner not dissimilar to Patrick White here. I am no expert on Bernhard – but I can say from this play (or do I mean this production – no way of unscrambling this egg) that his concerns bare very little relation to this country’s softer history (pace First Australians) or this country’s far less pompous theatre-making culture. What in Vienna was likely akin to tossing buckets of a sausage-factory waste at those in the most expensive seats in the house, is here no more than a chance to be diverted from the humdrum of our every-day lives with something allegedly artistic that’s even more hum-drum. In the oeuvre of things this production of The Histrionic sits at the Baal end of the scale – not (sticking Simon Stone for the moment) the elegant and searching production of Strange Interlude currently playing at Belvoir.
I have no problem with the odd play from overseas being put up for us to see for no other reason that to know what theatre-makers in other countries are up to. But do all the case studies have to come from Berlin or Vienna? (And yes I’d much rather by typing on my lap-top from a cafe in one of those cities right now.) What about the playscripts emerging from South America, Mexico, Canada – who all share our agony in trying to throw off the yoke of our colonial origins (be they English, Spanish or Portuguese).
This play is a diatribe against the many in Austria (if the author is correct in making this claim) who have turned a blind eye since 1945 to their complicity in Hitler’s rise to power (beyond offering his mother a manger in which to give give birth). The strength of this play is its capacity to insult Austria’s finest citizens. For goodness sake we don’t even have fine citizens – the powerful people in our society are yobs – aka Gina Rinehart (or should that be Herr Reinhard) and John Singleton. Neither of whom are likely to have ever sat in a theatre. This Thomas Bernhard playscript is the launching pad for an attack. Here in Sydney at the STC’s Wharf Theatre it attacked no one in the room on opening night – and is very unlikely to have that impact on anyone who chooses to buy a ticket to see it.
Okay so let’s say this production is a chance for the wonderful Bille Brown to sport his wares. Remember his superb Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss at Belvoir one of my favourite performances by anyone anywhere ever) – where he pushed to the cliff-edge of extravagance for sound dramaturgical reasons. Here we get Brown, as the vain, deluded hack actor, Bruscon, trading in the Wilde silver for identikit in stainless steel. On reading this play, the first person you would think of to play the part would be Bille Brown. But not that Bille Brown – a new one. A different one. What we get here is schtick! All responsibility for this mishap goes to the director. This will read as an odd idea – given how many times I have not been nice to Barry Otto over the years. But he is luminous in his tiny support role here as The Landlord – and has all the wares for a much more surprising and anarchic Bruscon.
Let me segue for a moment and go Hugo Weaving’s recent rendition of Valmont in the STC’s superb production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses where an essentially extremely humble actor (however skilled) threw himself into a documentation of vanity (sophisticated, duly confident, urbane) that will stick in my mind for at least as long as Brown’s Oscar Wilde survives. That’s what we look for in acting – reach! What we get here is Brown making a big effort to act bad acting well. It might have just been opening night nerves but obvious effort is not a trait that draws one to a performance. It’s precisely the other way round – like Bille Brown and Judy Davis in Andrews’ recent production of The Seagull.
I’ve run out of steam and I’ve got a life to live. I am sure I’ve created enough grief here to furrow more than one brow. Someone tell me I’m wrong – and why? And I’ll have another go at defending my stance.
PS: Hitler means nothing to us here in Sydney in 2012 – whereas he probably does still live on in the hearts of many an Austrian (love him or hate him). This production serves no purpose – it’s not even a toy or a lolly or a distraction. This is Schlusser’s Baal.
THE NEXT DAY
I declared that this was going to be an intemperate response – and that I would likely break many of my own home-made rules to writing criticism. Looking over this response I see I did both those things. I have as a result made some small changes and am going to say a little bit more which might better explain my reaction.
Firstly I cut the last line of what I published because it was personal and just plain rude. There was nothing instructive in it. However intemperate one gets there needs to be a constructive purpose to one’s words. And I have fiddled a bit with my comments about Brown’s acting – basically pointing to the ‘effort’ his performance appeared to show and how effort is the last thing one wants to observe in a big performance. All great acting IS an effort, but it also an effort we in the stalls should not observe.
Why I want to say more 24 hours later is because I have hit someone over the head with a saucepan in my first experience of his work. And that is the director Daniel Schlusser. I defer to his good reputation and Alison’s admiration for this production. But that’s not quite enough. I am taking much of my vengeance out of the wrong person. I am not going to take back anything I said about the Berlin influence or auteur directing, other than to say that in pointing my guns in those directions I am happening to miss the main target.
Having calmed a little – what I should be saying is that i don’t like this play. Schlusser has probably done a very good job in bringing it to life (indeed he has – especially visually). And that the problems I cite with regard to Bille Brown’s performance are less to do with Brown’s acting or Schlusser’s directing than they are to do with the script itself. So here’s what happened. I exited Wharf One unmoved and somewhat puzzled that so much creative effort had gone into bringing to life a script that seemed to me to be of little consequence -even as entertainment. When I got home and read the program notes, that’s when I allowed myself to become angry. One of the most irritating features of this script is the actor Buscon’s insistence that the green emergency exit lights are turned off for the last few minutes of the show – an incessant claim repeated over and over, that artistic perfection required a civic safety rule to be momentarily broken.
While watching the play my reaction was: what’s the fuss. It’s a light. Why is this detail so important to the success of the play about to go on? It’s not as if the burghers of the city were uniting to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. On getting home and climbing into bed with the program, I discover that this is a reference to a real-life event. That the director of one of Bernhard’s plays had been confronted with precisely this problem when premiering it at an important theatre festival. And in fury he cancelled the season after one single performance.In the larger scheme of things like global warming, human trafficking, the millions starving, this seemed a pretty tiny set-back over which to throw a hissy fit. That is what distressed me about this play and its production. I hold to what I say about the director and the lead actor, but they are largely the victims of collateral damage. The very idea that you could turn such a pipsqueak real-life crisis into a major work of art seems childish to me and vainglorious in the extreme.
It may well be that Bernhard uses this little event as a springboard into a larger attack on the values and priorities of Austrian officialdom. But we shouldn’t need to have read the program notes from cover to cover before we see a production for it to make sense to us. I am delighted that the STC is putting effort into supplying us with more in-depth reading about our experience earlier in the night. But it’s putting the cart before the horse for audience members to fully appreciate the show they have just seen only after they have applauded, the curtain has gone down, they’ve somehow got themselves home – and are only now finding out what it was all about just before turning off the bedside lamp.
It may be that the production needed to be more ‘critical’ of Buscon’s outlandish and egoistic behaviour for it to work for us – the great egalitarians we Australians are. But there’s another side issue which I failed to raise. While this play is essentially a two-hour monologue, the leading actor is supported by six other actors. Together they get no more than a few dozen lines of dialogue. And separately or together they play no significant role in moving the story forward. By-passing the dramaturgical limpness of their presence, one can see how their presence is also born of the way theatre is made in cities like Berlin and Vienna. Where companies might have 30 and sometimes up to 60 full-time actors on their pay role. In that way of making theatre there is nothing particularly decadent about putting six other actors from the ensemble up there as mere foils for the star turn. Very likely one or more are playing lead roles in others plays in this season’s repertoire. But here in Australia, to have an actor of the quality of Jennifer Vuletic pick up a paycheck weekly for little more than walking around in a strange costume and, towards the end, be smeared with a bit of black on her face is decadent. In our theatre culture it is a waste of talent and of money.
I don’t know if I have just dug a bigger hole for myself – if so, well all I can say is I felt I needed to. The first version of this review, however correct or incorrect in its analysis, suffered from the same disease as the show I was complaining about. It was hysterical.
Oh and on that point – you see we could go on. Let’s talk about how women are treated by the author. It may well be that Buscon himself is misogynistic, as opposed to the author. But if that’s the case then the entire production lacked a vital element – and that is irony. I go back to Schlusser and Tom Wright and the STC and Malthouse: is this really the best reading we could give of this play to an Australian audience? Or am I deaf and blind? Is it that the reading is ironic – ever so subtly ironic, however, that we mere Sydney mortals are just too crude to pick that up? That we were, in fact, being served jambon – and stupid us thought it to be mere ham.