The Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard, who died twenty years ago, has been dutifully produced here a few times but we never really get the point.
Or we didn’t, until this bracing and revelatory revival of his last play, which caused a storm in Vienna and incurred the wrath of the president Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi past was a subject of international controversy at the time of the premiere in 1988.
It’s that stain of anti-Semitism, and sense of bourgeois stasis, that informs the bile and anger of Bernhard’s play, which is essentially a posthumous biography of, and lament for, a professor who has killed himself.
Although the production has been a bumpy ride - co-director Annie Castledine has been ill in the later stages, leaving Annabel Arden to pick up the slack - the end result is three highly compelling, unusually long and urgently performed scenes in which the professor’s staff and family pick at the bones of national identity.
The only thing left for the Austrians is the theatre, and even that stinks, with the Burg Theatre and Lessing’s classic Minna von Barnhelm coming in for lively insult. Even concerts at the gilded Musicverein are no consolation.
I’ve never heard Bernhard’s distinctive disdain for his own country as loud and clear as it is in the translation of Andrea Tierney and Meredith Oakes.
And the cast carry it off superbly, from Barbara Marten’s blanched and committed housekeeper, supervising the polishing of the professor’s shoes and folding of shirts in what is virtually a forty-minute monologue with Hannah Boyde’s cowed little maid, right through to Jane Maud’s imperious elder daughter and Clive Mendus’ affably dispiriting professorial brother.
Annabel Arden invokes early Complicite productions (she is a founder member) with the corporate rushing about of Jews with suitcases at the start, the rising sounds of the fascist mob in the Heldenplatz at the end, and the long diagonal dinner table - design is by Iona McLeish, lighting by Ben Payne - where the family sip their soup and discuss the gutter press.
Other family members are played by Caroline Horton and Andrew Hawkins, while Paul Brightwell’s docile academic sums it all up by saying that his wife only really comes alive in cemeteries, and the professor’s widow (Petra Markham) says her throat always gets tighter in Neuhaus, the suburb where old people live who can’t manage Vienna.