Two names: Bille Brown and Barry Otto. You would think that would be enough to go to the theatre and see a great show. You would think that the skill of both of these fine actors would knock this one past the boundary, over the fence and into the faces of the excited crowd.
Well, if you were thinking that, you would be wrong. Once again, Sydney Theatre Company have found a way to kill off their ageing demographic by sending them into a boredom-induced coma. That might also explain why it was one of the smallest audiences I’ve seen in Wharf 1 for a while.
And look- it’s not the actors, designers or director who’ve sent them to an early grave, in my opinion. It’s Thomas Bernhard’s script as translated by Tom Wright that feels like the guilty party.
STC- what is going on? You are not having a good year. Everything that looked good in theory seems to be only two-dimensional in performance. ‘Histrionic’ took me back to last year’s ‘Edward Gant’- all the pieces feel like they should fit but they just don’t.
So let’s look at why it didn’t quite work.
I think it’s chiefly the script. Bernhard’s play is in response to his experiences on stage in Austria and it is written as a personal criticism of its petty government authorities as well as a self-deprecating examination of his own idiosyncrasies. Bernhardt has clearly placed himself in the centre of his writing in the role of Bruscon (played by Bille Brown) as he rallies against all the things that annoy him (which happens to be everything). I learn more about Bernhard that I do about anything else in this play.
Bille Brown does a terrific job in trying to bring life to Bruscon. The problem is the play doesn’t allow much of a journey for the character so his ranting and raving, so beautifully physicalised by Brown, lacks tension or complexity. He hates the town, he hates the stage, he is annoyed by his wife, his son, his daughter, people, lights, curtain, food… We don’t get to see him truly vulnerable, outside of a heightened tantrum or in any real conflict because he’s always in conflict. There is a lack of variety in the way the character has been crafted (by Bernhard or Tom Wright?) so that all Brown can do is give us his best performance skills and hope it is enough to mask that Bruscon is just a bit of a whinger.
Add to that, although the play has seven characters, it is essentially written as a monologue so the other characters are given idle busy work in feeding Bruscon reasons to complain or tasks in which to try to keep him happy. It’s a play pretending to be an ensemble piece but in no way is. It should be a one-man show- in fact, it would have been far more interesting if it was. It would give an actor the chance to create for us these other characters on stage, transforming and using his skills far more artfully perhaps that trying to sustain this thin play for one hour and forty minutes.
It’s such a pity to have assembled a lovely cast in a play that gives them such a little amount to do. They certainly did the best they could, wandering around the stage moving props on designer Marg Horwell’s set. And she gave them plenty of great things to play with- headless horses, huge hands, big ticket items. The set was all you could want to have some fun and to create a place of disrepair, a place long past its prime like an abandoned playground. This, of course, added to the metaphor of Bruscon himself.
I don’t think the cast could have done anymore with the script than they did. So I can only presume director Schlusser has pushed them all to embrace as much energy and comedic potential as the script allows. The only time tension potentially drew me in was in the quasi-sinister moments between Bruscon (Brown) and his daughter Sarah (Edwina Wren) as the very nature of their relationship suggested some sort of unnatural and abusive alliance was in place. But this was never really pursued so we felt nothing fulfilled its promise.
And that’s where the big problem in the script seemed to lie- when it seemed to want to take you into dark, uncomfortable places, it wimped out on itself and went for the potential laugh. I know a script can tread both of these waters but this one didn’t quite fulfil either. It was an anti-climatic punchline to the joke it hadn’t quite set up properly.
So all I can say is this: Bille Brown is a very good performer. The cast kept themselves busy and gave an expressive performance in Brown’s background. The design was very interactive. The costumes were colourful.
It’s a shame they couldn’t have been given something better to work with.