Until I hit Google, I didn’t know about Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. A quote from the New York Times that his works are “the most significant literary achievement since World War II” crops up a lot. As an over-educated reader, I guess I should know him, but The Histrionic hasn’t encouraged me to seek out more Bernhard.
In 1982 Bernhard had a super-hissy when a Saltzburg Festival theatre wouldn’t turn off emergency EXIT signs and he cancelled the season because “A society that can’t deal with two minutes of darkness can do without my play”. He then went all meta and returned to the same theatre with a dark comedy about a living-treasure genius artist performing his greatest work in a town that’s more interested in its pigs and sausages – complete with ironic rants about EXIT signs.
I love little more than art and writing, but I care little for self-important art and writers. Even with its satirical guise, The Histrionic is still so close to reality that I didn’t care.
Billie Brown joyfully embodies Bruscon, the self-obsessed genius who has to perform even if his cast/ family and audiences don’t live up to his standards. In a career-highlight performance, the work is mostly a one-sided conversation with Bruscon and for all its insight and genuine wit, I didn’t care if he succeeded, failed or was eaten by the pigs.
I didn’t care about the writer or his art because there’s nothing he’s saying that we don’t know. I know people like Bruscon and his cast and, even with their lost souls and broken hearts, I’m happy to light the way out and live without him.
But what makes this production so intriguing and enjoyable is that director Daniel Schlusser and his wonderful cast make us care for everyone else on the stage. The good-hearted landlord (Barry Otto), his wife (Kelly Butler) and daughter (Katherine Tobkin) and Bruscon’s wife (Jennifer Vuletic) and children (Josh Price and Edwina Wren), say little, but great theatre and irresistible performance isn’t really about getting the most lines.
As Bruscon pontificates, they accept and suffer in a marvellous backstage void filled with saw dust and old props that have been left to decay (designed by Marg Horwell and lit by Paul Jackson). With the likes of huge fruit and veg, a giant hand and massive moose, you can’t not laugh at and love the artifice of theatre – and there’s the bonus game of “what show is that prop from” (hooray for another appearance of the bi-polar bear).
Schlusser’s voice is by far the more interesting one in The Histrionic and he balances the line between self-indulgence and art so deftly that even the likes of Bruscon are forgiven, if not loved.