Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heldenplatz by Thomas Bernhard

In no-choice economy class at the Arcola an empty adjacent seat is almost a necessity, so being told to close gaps for a full house wasn’t good news. It’s a tribute to Thomas Bernhard’s prose that the first half, despite its 85 minute length, keeps the audience spellbound.

Set during a right-wing resurgence in 1988 Vienna, the play’s contemporary relevance is very evident under Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden’s crisp direction
The linear lay-out loses some of the studio’s intimacy but it’s integral to the design of the scenes: servants’ quarters in a bleak apartment, a graveside disquisition and family gathering for a last supper. Rectangles are the play’s central motif, from the refugee suitcases in the ghostly prologue to the formal dining table at the end, when the final word is left to the Heldenplatz itself.

Major themes emerge in three scenes. The first is haunted by the presence of the recently deceased Professor Schuster, who has committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of the flat into the square. He is present both in his housekeeper’s eerie near-monologue, adoringly recalling his cold persona – a striking performance by the suitably bony Barbara Marten - and in the heap of identical black brogues that Hannah Boyde, as a fearful maid, is cleaning. His spirit seems to inhabit the wintry rays that pierce the fateful window.

As the Professor’s daughter, a strident Jane Maud, and his mordantly witty brother Joseph, played by Clive Mendus, talk at the graveside, the focus shifts. ‘My brother committed suicide; I went to Neuehaus’, says the arthritic Joseph. The merits of survival tactics adopted by remaining family members are considered – a vital issue for Jews in a society where anti-Semitism is rife. Bernhard’s portrayal of Austria damaged his reputation as a dramatist.

In the final scene family members wait for the wife whose sanity is on a knife edge, apparently only maintained in an absence from Vienna. Has the housekeeper, her implied though never recognised rival, orchestrated the situation? The gaunt Petra Markham makes a suitably tragic partner for the Professor whose ghost haunts the play and her final collapse to the resounding 'Sieg Heils' from the square makes real the suffering that motivated the Professor’s suicide.


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