Bernhard Minetti was a great German actor who died in 1998; the play bearing his name was written for him by the Austrian dramatist Thomas Bernhard in 1976. And our very own Peter Eyre, performing in a translation he has written with director Tom Cairns, supplies a mordant, tragic and poignant epitaph for an old actor who has truculently passed his sell-by date.
Minetti, lost to the stage for thirty years, has fetched up in a hotel in Ostend on New Year's Eve during a snow storm in the forlorn hope of meeting the director who might hire him one last time as King Lear. As he says, more than once, he has committed professional suicide by turning his back on the classics. And now he is waiting for God or, at least, the director.
New work has been the death of him, and he's lost his law suit against the city council who fired him. Thomas Bernhard is commenting bitterly on the contemporary German theatre's obsession with reclaiming the classics at the cost of local new plays (this is as true now as it was then; most new plays in Germany are British).
So now, as the storm rages outside, he unwittingly creates his own contemporary Lear to the accompaniment of banal hotel lobby music and the indifferent attendance of a lonely woman in a red dress (Sian Thomas), the hotel receptionist (Steven Beard) and the occasional incursion of a bunch of masked revellers – drawn from students at RADA and the Juillard School in New York - crossing the stage.
Minetti, too, has a mask, designed by a great artist, locked away in his suitcase. Paradoxically, it's the mask that reveals the actor and indeed the person, another theme wittily incorporated in Cairns's production, and his own design of an unfriendly Art Deco lobby in brown wood, disgorging its inhabitants (who also include Leigh Gill's dwarf – a wordless Fool, perhaps? - and John Nettleton's fussing old married man) from the lift through the revolving door of anonymity.
This is an anti-festival play for a great international festival, a tragic role for a great soul-baring actor. Peter Eyre has one of the most magnificent voices in the British theatre, and he sings Minetti with a defeated droop, railing against the world and its ways without quite laying himself open to the elements or indeed his own fury. But it's a stylish, striking performance in a play that adds class, lustre and something very different to this year's international programme.
Minetti runs until 18 August at the Royal Lyceum Theatre
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