Thomas Bernhard will be a new name to many British theatregoers. Primarily known as a novelist, very few of his plays are available in English. So this outing of his Destination - newly translated by Jan Villem van den Bosch and directed by the acclaimed Kathryn Hunter for Volcano Theatre - presents a very rare and very welcome opportunity. And one that owes a lot to Samuel Beckett.
A black farce about power and oppression, Destination explores the difficult relationship between a domineering mother and her shy-in-the-extreme daughter, and how the visit of an avant-garde playwright to their seaside summer retreat threatens to upset the status quo.
An air of imprisonment hangs over proceedings from the start. Designer Liz Cooke's inhospitable domestic interior, with concrete walls and sparse furniture, recreates a Beckettian world of unfulfilled lives, and the anticipation of the writer's visit during the first half echoes a "waiting for Godot" atmosphere. There's plenty of potent symbolism, too, in the extreme care taken with packing cases, clothes and the initial "breaking free from chains" mime (which you have to expect in a production involving mime-extraordinaire Marcello Magni). These touches could have easily seemed heavy-handed but in fact work well, serving to enhance the absurdist style of the production.
The centrality of the mother's speaking voice creates a monologue-like intensity to the situation - again, resonances of Beckett (in particular Krapp's Last Tape) come to mind. This puts a heavy burden on actress Fern Smith but she rises to the challenge. Nearly mute, Matilda Leyser's portrayal of the daughter relies less on voice and more on movement. The physicality of her performance - including some beautiful dance movements care of Spanish choreographer, Jordi Cortes - conveys all the frustration of a caged animal.
Against these strong female performances, Burn Gorman's writer appears insignificant, not at all the "brilliant avant-garde playwright" he's supposed to be. His baseball cap and trainers do contrast well with the old-fashioned clothes of the women, but such wardrobe decisions are enough to make his character believable. What's more, they appeared out of place in a play centred so much on European experience and politics.
Like the design and the choreography, music, which so fascinated Bernhard himself, is central to and pregnant with meaning in Destination. In fact, the whole play is constructed on musical, as much as literary, lines - the daughter is able to free and express herself on the piano - and Patricia Fitzgerald's discordant sounds signal key moments in the present and powerful influences from the past.
All in all, Destination is a demanding production but no less engaging for it.