Heldenplatz @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Hannah Boyde, Paul Brightwell, Daniel Curshen, Andrew Hawkins, Caroline Horton, Petra Markham, Barbara Marten, Jane Maud, Clive Mendus, Holly Strickland

directed by
Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden, Delyth Jones (Associate), Tarek Iskander (Assistant)
The Sound of Music is hardly known in Austria. In Salzburg, where it’s set and large parts of the movie were filmed, it’s considered a sideline, strictly for the tourists, while the locals focus their attention on Mozart worship, also commercial but far safer.

It’s not the saccharine content of the film that offends but the association with the Nazis, still strictly taboo, a clear case of “don’t mention the war whatever you do”.

It’s hardly surprising then that Thomas Bernhard’s last play Heldenplatz, created a huge furore when it premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1988.

“There are more Nazis in Vienna now than in ’38” says one of the characters and the Austrians are constantly charged with being a nation of Jew-haters. The President of the time, former Nazi Officer Kurt Waldheim, was quick to condemn the work and the press seized on it as a scandal of national proportions.

If the playwright’s content was provocative and contentious, his form was pretty conventional. While his younger countryman Peter Handke has been stretching theatrical form as far as it can go since the sixties (to the point of incomprehension at times), Bernhard falls back on words, words, words and logical reasoning to make his points. And, boy, does he make them; again and again.

Less dialectic and a little more poetry wouldn’t go amiss, although a glance at Meredith Oakes and Andrea Tierney’s new translation shows it to be in a sort of blank verse, not really evident from hearing it spoken.

Heldenplatz is cast in three great scenes. The first, a two-hander, is packed full of expositional material, painting a picture of a neurotic, obsessive and hateful society (the English come in for some stick too). Barbara Marten holds the stage well in what is virtually a 40 minute monologue, as we see below stairs of a wealthy, intellectual Jewish family in Vienna.

Herr Professor Josef Schuster has flung himself from a window, unable to cope any longer with the social and cultural climate he finds just as oppressive 50 years after he was forced to flee the Anschluss. The second scene introduces us to his daughters and more pragmatic brother, who sees what’s going on around him but is able to overlook the presence of alleged Nazis in the audience of his beloved Musikverein, which he frequents strictly for the music.

It’s a long and demanding first half. What follows after the interval is much shorter and altogether more interesting, with the whole family gathered at the funeral dinner. Iona McLeish has created a visually exciting traverse space with a wash of tin flooring which, in the third scene, is dissected diagonally by a long Last Supperish table.

Some of the acting could do with toning down a bit bellowing better suited to a much larger venue but the direction by a veritable team of people (two directors, associate and assistant) is solid throughout.

The second play in the Arcola’s short German season following Dea Loher’s Innocence, Heldenplatz gives an invaluable insight into important aspects of recent European social history and is essential viewing for anyone wanting to see beyond the boundaries of our own theatrical traditions.

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