Continuing the mini German-language season at the Arcola, Heldenplatz is an uncompromising difficult play which has had a troubled existence, especially in playwright Thomas Bernhard’s native Austria. Named for the square in Vienna where Adolf Hitler declared the Anschluβ that annexed Austria to Nazi Germany and marked the beginning of the territorial aggrandisement that led to World War II, this is an excoriating look at the Austrian national character and just how prevalent right-wing sensibilities were in 1938 and persist even in the modern day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this outraged many Austrians who felt Bernhard was sullying the reputation of their nation, confronting as it does some uncomfortable truths.
The play is set in 1988 and the Schuster family and household are reeling from the death of its patriarch. As they prepare for the funeral, and then join for one final meal in his apartment afterwards, these Jewish intellectuals who fled the country once, they have found that little has changed for them: pervasive hatred and anti-Semitic prejudice still abound and they struggle to find their place in a society shorn of illusion.
Unfortunately, despite this interesting history and context to the work, the play did not live up to expectations. One of Bernhard’s hallmarks is the endless repetition of the phrases and words , giving a kind of musicality to his plays, and I don’t know if something was lost in the translation (by Meredith Oakes & Andrea Tierney), or the actors need more time to get used to it, or indeed if it is part of the directorial intent (Annie Castledine & Annabel Arden) but it just sounds rather odd. It’s quite arrhythmical, personally I found the repetition is frequently jarring and it is not helped by some curious choices of delivery, rather one-note with no levels, which during the long monologues, struggle to keep the attention.
Barbara Marten’s tightly buttoned housekeeper Frau Zittler was the standout for me and along with Clive Mendus as the dead man’s brother, seemed the most comfortable with the language and gave the best deliveries. On a metallic, brushed steel set, on which a long table appears for the second act dinner party, it looks rather post-modern which adds to the alienating effect, and the early scenes borrowed a staging device from the excellent Our Class with the characters not involved in the action, watching from chairs placed at the edge of the stage. They did this dressed in coats marked with the yellow star that identified their race, a chilling reminder of the ghosts haunting this story.
This is not an easy night at theatre to be sure. As part of the tradition of vergangenheitsbewältigung (dealing with the past, as I’m sure you knew already!), Heldenplatz confronts the ugly truth of anti-Semitism in the modern day as he saw it in 1988. And with the success of the far-right in the last Austrian elections in 2008 still fresh in the mind, one realises just how horribly prescient and relevant Bernhard’s work really is.