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Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard

January 6, 2016 14 comments

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard. (1987)

Elisabeth II is one of the last plays written by Thomas Bernhard. It is set in an apartment in Vienna. The old industrial tycoon Herrenstein owns an apartment in the center of the city, ideally situated to see and cheer the passage of Queen Elisabeth II during her visit to Vienna. As a consequence, his apartment will be soon overflowing with eager relatives and acquaintances who want to see the queen. That’s the plot.

Herrenstein is an angry disabled old man. If you’ve seen the French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez, you’ll picture him in your mind. He’s in a wheelchair but insists on rewinding the clock himself. He’s cantankerous, whimsical and has an opinion about everything. He hates his family and relatives who give it right back at him, except for one nephew. His everyday life depends on his secretary/companion Richard and his housekeeper Miss Zallinger. He’s egoistical, violent in his speech. His mind runs in circles and the play is made of long monologues where he complains about this or that, trying to decide where he’ll drag Richard on holiday the morrow. He rants and raves against anything and everything: the stupidity of watching Queen Elisabeth drive under his windows, the mentality of the Austrians, the atmosphere in Vienna, his relatives, his bad health…

This is a play that needs to be watched and leaves no room for poor acting or a weak direction. The text is composed of long rants that deserve to be told and not read. The actor playing Herrenstein is stuck in a wheelchair and speaks during two hours. According to the cast and the direction, this play can be fantastic or a total disaster. Mildly successful is not an option; as its main character, the text is not forgiving for lukewarm interpretation.

I’ve seen a version directed by Aurore Fattier with Denis Lavant playing Herrenstein.

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Both direction and acting were absolutely stunning. Aurore Fattier managed to make us laugh at and with this cranky old man and made the best of the almost silent second characters. Alexandre Trocki plays Richard and he’s on stage almost as long as Herrenstein but he barely speaks. He manages to impose his silent presence to the spectator as comic counterpart to his vituperating master. The coming and goings of the servants preparing the reception for all the people who invited themselves to watch the parade of Elisabeth II is full of mischief and comical effects.

Bernhard_denis_lavantDenis Lavant owns the space, incarnates perfectly this obnoxious old man. His speech, his movements and his tone are brilliant. I admire his stamina and that kind of performance is the quintessence of theatre. Why go to the theatre? Because there’s nothing like watching actors playing live a whole text, not scenes that have been put together afterwards like in a film. Denis Lavant slips into Herrenstein’s skin for two hours. During this time, he’s Herrenstein for us and the old man becomes real. Nothing compares to that.

As a spectator, we are horrified by Herrenstein’s cruelty and at the same time, we pity him. Like the playwright, he’s been ill for a long time. He’s old and at the mercy of Richard and Miss Zallinger’s services. He’s pathetic at times and needy. He’s afraid of Richard leaving him. He’d like to be strong but he’s totally unsettled by the change in his routine coming from all the fuss around the queen’s visit.

This is my first encounter with the work of Thomas Bernhard. I expected bleak, it was as bleak as books about nasty old age can be. It reminded me of The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa.

I also knew he was harsh on the Austrian people but I didn’t expect that he would be that harsh, basically calling them weak and talking about nests of Nazis. As the crème de la crème of the Vienna aristocracy and bourgeoisie gush about how healthy he looks and how excited they are to see the queen, he hurls insults behind their back. Bernhard emphasizes on the narrow-mindedness of the upper classes and their inherent vulgarity.

Berhnard has been ill for most of his life, suffering of lung problems. Just like Proust. I couldn’t help comparing Miss Zallinger to the poor Françoise in In Search of Lost Time and to the real life servants who took care of Proust. He must have been a difficult patient and I suspect Bernhard was one too and that Herrenstein owns a bit of his creator’s nature.

As you’ve probably understood by my enthusiastic commentary, this is an outstanding but vicious play. The ending is unexpected, ironic and perfect. The version I’ve seen is flawless. Really. But I still think it was too long. In my opinion, there were repetitions in Herrenstein’s rants that could have been cut. I understand that these long monologues are Bernhard’s brand of theatre. I don’t think I’ll read his other plays but I’ll sure watch them if I have the opportunity.

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