Heldenplatz

Thomas Bernhard, translated by Meredith Oakes and Andrea Tierney
Arcola Theatre
(2010)

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"The state of the theatre in Vienna has always been terminal" one of the characters exclaims knowingly towards the end of Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard's drama. It's a statement that is meant to lampoon Vienna's bourgeois, hypocritical taste for the arts, but unfortunately it applies as much to the play we're watching. This is a piece for which terminal really is the right word: not only because it is concerned solely with endings, but because it is as inert and stultifying as the Austrian society that it so savagely criticises.

Bernhard's difficult relationship with the Austrian authorities was typified by his decision to forbid in his will the staging of any of his work posthumously within the country's borders. So now it is possible to see this bitter dissection of Austrian vices anywhere but in Austria. To a British audience it is a strangely contextless experience: the reason for the characters' bile is meant to be implicit within the drama, but in fact it's so far buried that it's almost completely inaccessible to us.

It's 1988 and Professor Josef Schuster, an eminent academic, has thrown himself from the balcony of his apartment in central Vienna. His servants, friends and family gather for his funeral, and calmly pick over the reasons for his action. The family are eminent Jewish intellectuals; the professor and his brother Robert fled to England in 1938 to escape the Nazis. According to his family, the professor had grown slowly disgusted by the Austria to which he returned: he found the culture shallow and tasteless, the people two-faced; and his wife couldn't stop hearing ghostly cheering from the Heldenplatz across the road, where in 1938 Hitler had held a rally.

Without any knowledge of the background or context to the author's bitter accusations of Austrian anti-semitism, it's very hard for us to know how to take them. It's typical of a play in which the ideas laid down are contentious but there is no character-driven conflict to embody them - and so no way in for us to try and understand the competing ideologies, and also no dynamism to the scenes.

The professor's brother, Robert, is the mouthpiece for many of the controversial statements: but they simply are just stated - he is never challenged by any of the other characters, or asked to expand on an opinion. "This megalomaniacal republicanism", he rails, "and this megalomaniacal socialism which for half a century has had nothing to do with socialism " - it's a sweeping statement to not be backed up by any specifics. It's clear that the playwright is writing from deep anger, but as a result he makes his characters his rhetoricians, and it's hard for us to relate to them when we don't know from what personal place within them these tides of opinion have erupted.

There is sometimes a sense of deliberate, Chekhovian inconsequence to the characters' exchanges, but without the Russian master's moments of profound human insight. Bernhard has captured instead only the rhythm of leaden statements being announced to the room without invitation, and left to hang in the air unexplored.

And the talk of anti-semitism? Again, of course we know that the playwright felt deeply about the issue, but he resists rooting his claims in specifics. When Robert mentions a recent incident where his niece was apparently spat on in the street, she responds "Not exactly" - but the conversation moves on, it's never resolved what the truth of the story was. The rhythm of the conversation forbids that any statement should be returned to, or picked up and scrutinised in depth.

A repetitive script, which frequently replays motifs and bland conversational lines without escalating their significance, is not helped by Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden's fairly static production. There's a suffocating atmosphere, with many long pauses and an excess of non-verbal emoting from the characters whom the playwright has given almost nothing to say. The directors end the play with an interesting expressionistic flourish, with the past seeping into and gradually taking over the present; but the sense of climax it provides is not echoed in the text, which simply finishes its damning utterances, with a blunt full stop.

Until 6th March

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury