The Histrionic – Sydney Theatre Company

Thomas Bernhard was mad as hell, and so he wrote The Histrionic. Bernhard, the story goes, was so enraged by the unwillingness of the fire warden to disable the emergency exit lights in his play The Ignoramus and the Madman that he not only canceled its entire run, but then went and wrote a play to rant about the injustice.

Katherine Tonkin, Bille Brown and Kelly Butler in Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre’s The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher) Image by Jeff Busby

The result is the unrelenting The Histrionic, a one-hour-forty-minute-no-interval slice of madness. It’s probably the most self-referential and “insidery” thing you’ll see all year. This is for actors, and writers, and people of theatre. The industry-heavy opening night audience ate it up. There’s something to be said for knowing your audience, and The Histrionic knows actors.

Chiefly, it is the story of Bruscon, a ‘living national treasure’ of the world of theatre who found himself, after a few bad turns, producing his play The Wheel of Comedy in a provincial little village with more pigs than people. Home of high art it is not. It’s an insult to his dignity and his talent. And he will tell you about it. Boy, will he ever tell you about it.

In a bravura performance by Bille Brown as the lambasting and magnetic Bruscon, this apparent treasure of the stage dominates the agrarian and rustic theatre and its folk. He orders about the unsuspecting Landlord and his own family at great lengths. He is as unrelenting as the sharpness of Thomas Bernhard’s translation from the original German could possibly be; his bravado and cruelty cut like knives.

Bruscon abuses his family – wife, daughter and son – in just about any way possible. It’s really funny, until it’s not. And when it’s not it becomes relentless; his abuse is unavoidable, harsh, cruel. This comedy dips its toes into the blackest of black and will probably, at least once, make you uncomfortable.

Bille Brown’s talent is undeniable and the cast is all exceptional, but it’s a quiet and astonishingly, effectively understated performance from Barry Otto that absolutely was the standout of the night; to take an unassuming, perpetually ordered-about Landlord and become so transformed is a reminder of the sensational acting talent we have in this country.

The set, designed by Marg Horwell, is irreverently bucolic and cleverly meta-textual. It’s a stage within a stage – perfect for descending down the rabbit hole that is a play about a play written to talk about plays.

The Histrionic is not the easiest night at the theatre, or the nicest. But it’s funny, and it’s exceptionally well-acted, and you should see it and figure out what you think about it. It’ll stay with you; I’m still considering it. And that counts for something – that makes theatre a powerful thing.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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