Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 12 February, 2010

Thomas Bernhard was not exactly Austria’s favourite son, nor did he feel much filial affection. His plays contain – contain? They are – scathing indictments of the country and the national character as being at best complacent and in denial, but more usually prejudice-ridden and at root still Nazi. Heldenplatz, his final play, was written in 1988 during the presidency of Kurt Waldheim and as the Austrian Freedom Party under Jörg Haider careered towards the far right. The following year Bernhard died, leaving instructions in his will that there be no new stagings or publications of his plays in Austria.
Heldenplatz consists of three lengthy scenes depicting the family and household of a liberal Jewish professor of philosophy who has recently committed suicide by defenestration, we infer in despair at the state of his country. The matter seems at first to be the elephant in the room, as his housekeeper and maid speak about disposing of his clothes, his domestic obsessions and the like, veering away from the death whenever it looms into view. Gradually, however, the theme rises, until the final scene of a post-funeral dinner becomes little more than invective against all things Austrian (including Vienna’s main theatres), culminating in the Professor’s widow falling into one of the fits we are told she has regularly suffered, imagining she hears the cheering of the crowds outside the apartment window in Vienna’s central square, the Heldenplatz, as they welcomed Hitler into the city 50 years earlier almost to the day.
It is not easy viewing, and Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden’s production does not try to alleviate it; rather the reverse, framing the scenes by keeping the non-playing cast members visible at either end of the traverse stage, dressed as Jewish victims about to be shipped to the concentration camps. We have no refuge: we must either commit ourselves to Bernhard’s words, which are torrential and fervently condemnatory, or watch the opposite bank of the audience squirming just as we are. In Britain the temptation for many would be to discount such sentiments as the exaggerations of the liberal intelligentsia. But there is no doubt that Bernhard meant his words literally... words such as “If they were honest, they’d love to gas us today.” It is deeply discomfiting, but such discomfort can be salutary, like a dose of nasty medicine.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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